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Drug court could fall victim to budget cuts

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A program that has changed lives in Plymouth County may be threatened.

Adult drug court, in which adults facing drug-related charges meet with a panel of their peers and follow its recommendations, could be cut in Plymouth County if a lack of money is available, according to Mary Buhman, drug court coordinator.

Dollars for drug court come out of the state's corrections budget, explained Linn Hall, director of Iowa's Third District for the Department of Corrections. The Third District includes Plymouth County and 15 other counties.

The Legislature hasn't released what the Department of Corrections' budget will look like for 2010-11.

"We won't know until we see the final product and it goes back to the governor's desk whether, in fact, that will be something we can live with...or whether in fact we will need to cut the program next year," Hall said. "We're really not sure."

Drug court is not a high-dollar program for the district.

The expenses are one person's salary and benefits plus other costs -- mainly paying for a meal for the panel members the night they meet with drug court clients.

"Volunteers come here each month and they give their time from 5-10 p.m.," Buhman said. "They just get a meal."

Drug court is actually saving the state money, Hall said.

The alternative -- whether it's spending time in county jail or prison -- is much more expensive.

Drug court kicked off in 2007 in Plymouth County.

Since its inception, drug court has involved about 60 adults.

More than 13 have graduated from the program, meaning they've met all requirements set by their panel for following the law, making good choices and taking responsibility.

"Drug courts show a much better success rate than traditional approaches -- prison, traditional treatment," Hall said. "The theory behind it is more specific, direct, frequent, one-on-one contact with the court system and the corrections business itself."

That combination, he said, does seem to work.

"Whether it's that fear factor or positive reinforcement by a court being that concerned and that involved with somebody, I'm not sure. But it's a good program," Hall said.

But drug court has already been trimmed back in the district, falling victim to the state's budget cuts.

Lately, when people retire from jobs in the district, those positions are left unfilled, thanks to a tightened budget after Gov. Chet Culver's 10 percent across-the-board cut this past winter, Hall said.

More staff are being encouraged to take early retirement, he noted.

Those open positions have been spread throughout the Third District.

That made it possible for the district to continue all of its programs, just to a lesser degree.

"We have tried not to completely cut any programs," Hall said.

The decreases in staff last year meant a lower number of people could participate in drug court in Plymouth County, he said.

That's a trend he'd like to see end.

With 10 percent across-the-board cut, juvenile drug court was also affected.

In the Third Judicial District, several juvenile positions were cut, meaning that those employees who remained have a larger area to cover, Buhman said.

Juvenile drug court's dollars come through the Department of Human Services budget, Buhman said.

For now, it looks like the program will have enough money to continue next year.

People can contribute to adult and juvenile drug court in several ways, Buhman said.

First, they can volunteer to serve on a drug court panel, holding the drug court clients accountable and setting expectations for them.

The panels receive updates from the clients' probation officers and, if they need to, can talk to a judge about sending a client to jail for a few nights.

Panel members usually volunteer one night a month to meet with the clients.

Second, people can contribute by offering opportunities for community service. Jobs like mowing, raking and cleaning could be done by drug court clients to fulfill a requirement the panel sets for them.

"Right now we're asking people to do community service and there aren't many opportunities out there," Buhman said.

Thirdly, people can contribute by offering incentives -- things like free bowling tickets or free pizza certificates -- that the panels can reward clients with.

Anyone with community service project possibilities or incentives to offer can contact Buhman at 712-540-3063.

"The community support is so important with this program," Buhman said. "We really need it to be successful."

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