Friday, August 15, 2008

DIVERT Court: Saving Lives and Saving Money in Texas

NPR had an interesting story this morning regarding a criminal diversion program in Texas for first time drug offenders arrested for possession of small amounts of narcotics. The program, run by Judge John Creuzot in Dallas, is one of eighty "problem-solving" courts established in the state. This particular program, simply called DIVERT court, was established ten years ago and appears to be paying dividends.

There's a rare set of relationships here among criminals, court officials, judge, case managers and drug and alcohol therapists that's grounded in the repetition of seeing each other every week, often several times a week.

"Natasha, I'm glad you're here today because you're going to Phase Three," Creuzot announces to widespread applause. It's taken Natasha Stephens a year to get this far, and she returns to her seat, beaming at his praise.

"You proud of yourself — you were pretty damn mean when you first got here, girl," the judge says.

Stephens says she began drinking when she was 8 years old. By the time she was busted for possessing a gram of cocaine at age 21, she'd been addicted to cocaine and alcohol for years.

"All through my teens — couldn't even go to class," she explains. Stephens was facing a felony conviction and up to two years in prison. But because it was her first arrest and the amount she was carrying was relatively small, she was a candidate for Creuzot's DIVERT Court.

Stephens soon discovered that diversion is not easy. Instead of doing nothing in jail, she had to meet with her case manager twice a week and attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, because she had both addictions. There were intensive outpatient treatment sessions and drug tests.

Those who know something about alcohol and cocaine addiction probably won't be surprised to hear that one weekend, Stephens fell off the wagon and subsequently failed a drug test.

This is where the differences between the philosophy of DIVERT Court and the rest of the Texas criminal justice system become particularly apparent. Instead of kicking Stephens out of the program and sending her off to prison, Creuzot sent her to 45 days of intensive inpatient drug treatment.

Stephens says that changed her life.

Understanding just how close she was to a life of oblivion, Stephens dropped her know-it-all attitude and got serious about recovery. She's been sober ever since, with the drug tests to prove it.

Creuzot says what's different about DIVERT Court is the intense judicial oversight.

"A person who relapses on drugs needs further treatment. Our responses are research-driven," he says.

The statistics back him up. Two studies by Southern Methodist University show that DIVERT Court cuts the recidivism rate by 68 percent over the regular Texas criminal justice courts. For every dollar spent on the court, $9 are saved in future criminal justice costs.

Creuzot says the next step is to expand these courts to include perpetrators of property crimes and to raise the possession limits. Currently, if you're busted with two grams of cocaine, for example, that's too much to qualify. Creuzot would like to see DIVERT expanded beyond first-time offenders.

The NPR article also contains links to various resources, including the Southern Methodist University study discussed above. The study concluded the following:
This study finds the Benefit-Cost ratio associated with the DIVERT Court program over a 40 month follow-up period to be 9.43:1. That is, on average, for every dollar spent on upgrading drug treatment from the Control group (traditional adjudication) to drug treatment through DIVERT Court, $9.43 of costs can be saved by society over a 40 month post-treatment period. Even though this Benefit-Cost ratio is quite substantial, it is still a conservative estimate of the benefits forthcoming from the DIVERT Court program for reasons detailed in the report.
Read the full article and listen to the NPR story here. Examine the Southern Methodist University study here.

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