County judge discusses problem-solving courts
Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate was the highest among northeast states in 2014. But housing someone in a county jail costs money.
It costs $40,000 a year in a county jail, according to the County Commissioner Association. Statewide, 65 percent of these inmates are there for a substance abuse disorder. Another 10 to 30 percent suffer from mental illness. For these people, there are community-based alternatives to incarceration that cost less than half of the cost to jail someone. And that, in turn, has led to the creation of problem-solving courts.
There are currently 106 problem-solving courts in 44 counties, a 300-percent increase since 2007. Northampton County’s Problem-Solving Court celebrated its second anniversary in April. Judge Craig Dally updated Northampton County Council July 13 on how this approach is working.
There are basically two courts. The first is drug court, available to persons who have already been convicted. The second is mental health court, which is for persons who have been charged with minor crimes in which their mental challenges play an appreciable role.
There are currently 44 participants (76 percent male and 24 percent female) in this four-phase program, which lasts 18 to 24 months. There have been five graduates.
This program is for people who have had repeated treatment attempts and repeated criminal activity. The average age is 29, and the drug of choice is heroin.
Drug courts reduce costs of housing at the jail. Based on the per-diem cost of an inmate, Dally estimates drug court has saved taxpayers $944,000 thus far.
“But for the program, they’d either be in our jail or the state prison,” Dally said, adding the reason there have been only five graduates is because the program has only existed for two years.
For that reason, it is too early to say whether a successful graduate will return to crime, which is called recidivism. Dally conceded he has insufficient data to make any claim about his court. But nationally, he noted that the one-year recidivism rate of drug court graduates is just 17 percent, and the two-year recidivism rate is only 27 percent.
Without a drug court, the recidivism rate of a drug offender is 60 to 80 percent.
A condition of graduation from drug court is payment of all fines, court costs and restitution. The five graduates have paid more than $15,000 in costs, fines and restitution. This compares favorably to many defendants who never pay a penny.
Drug courts also reduce costs of housing at the jail. Based on the per-diem cost of an inmate, Dally estimates drug court has saved taxpayers $944,000 thus far.
Dally told council that, in a drug court, participants are employed, going to school and working on their recovery. This court is also a benefit to different county agencies who work together, like drug and alcohol. The community saves money because it lowers the tax burden and enables members to work and raise their families, instead of leaning on others. All must be employed.
“We’re trying to encourage them to be responsible citizens,” he said.
Almost all the funding for this court comes from insurance companies, Medicaid and grants. The county does pay for transitional housing.
The drug court meets once every week, and there are usually 10 hearings. People in this court are tested twice weekly.
Mental health court
Unlike drug court, which is for people who have already been convicted, mental health court is diversionary. What this means is that charges are dismissed on successful completion of a program. There must be a direct correlation between mental illness and criminal activity. Also, the district attorney must recommend the participant.
Thus far, there have been 12 graduates. There are only 10 participants, and seven are men. The average age is 42.
Dally said the courts are also considering a post-conviction court for mentally ill defendants.
Participants usually include persons who assaulted family members or who engage in shoplifting.
According to Dally, this court adds little appreciable cost to the county.
There are also times when participants are both addicted and mentally ill. Dally discussed a person he actually removed from drug court and sent to jail that day. He has been in foster care or jail since he was 9 years old. “He’s been institutionalized his entire life, and we had to institutionalize him,” said Dally. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Councilman Hayden Phillips complained the state reduced the number of mental hospitals, adding people then wonder about a mental health problem.
“There’s no place to go with these people,” Dally agreed.
Councilman Seth Vaughn asked Dally about establishing a veterans’ court. He said it is being considered, but he questions whether there is enough demand.