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Hillsborough County To Create Drug Court, But Will It Make A Dent?

Ryan Lessard

  About 80% of the people behind bars in New Hampshire have substance abuse issues. It’s a growing problem and one way the justice system is trying to address the problem is with drug courts—where nonviolent offenders have their sentences suspended if they take part in treatment. Five counties now operate drug courts and efforts are underway to start two more in Manchester and Nashua. The program could help reduce recidivism rates.

Sitting in his downtown Manchester chambers at the Hillsborough County Superior Court, Judge Ken Brown describes a typical day…

“Yesterday, I did dispositional so we had preliminary hearings on about 20 cases and I’d say 15 of them were drug related.”

When he presided in Strafford County, where he sat for several years, Brown would’ve sent some of these cases to drug court. He says he’d like to have that option in Manchester.

“And once you realize that a substantial amount of our crime is driven by mental health or addiction or both, you quickly come to the conclusion that you got to address those issues. Not just put someone in jail because they committed a crime, but to address the underlying reason why they committed the crime.”

Underlying Reasons

“I had a really, really rough childhood, and I needed some sort of escape.”

This is Chris. His methods of escape included painkillers, heroin and cocaine. He spent time behind bars off and on for several years. Chris completed drug court in Strafford County three years ago. Chris didn’t want to use his full name because he didn’t want it to hurt his business. Today, he’s a consultant, owns a house and has custody of his son. Chris credits the drug court for getting his life on track.

“Every time I was at a stumbling block, whether it was in the form of a counselor or whether it was in the form of a probation officer—every single step of the way, somebody was there for me.”

Success like Chris’ isn’t common. Nor is it common for prisoners with substance problems to end up in drug court.

Making A Dent

University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter has studied drug courts nationwide and crunched the numbers.

“Drug courts are handling certainly less than 10%, maybe only about 5%.”

He says in 2010, U.S. drug courts only served about 50,000 people. Only a fraction of the number incarcerated for drug related crimes.

“Well, you know the annual inflow is in the order of a million. It’s hardly going to be detectible.”

That’s why backers of drug courts in New Hampshire think they could do more good if they had room to grow.

George Maglaras is a County Commissioner in Strafford who led the efforts to get New Hampshire’s the first drug court off the ground. For him, drug courts are a straight-forward equation. Fewer addicts means less crime.

“Many of them commit up to 100 crimes before they’re caught. Mostly property crimes. So if you can get just one person to be successful, that has a huge impact on society.”

Return On Investment

Impact on taxpayers is hard to calculate. The cost of providing would-be prisoners drug court programming is about 25% what it costs to keep them in jail. But even if New Hampshire’s current drug courts were operating at full capacity, they’d only serve about 170 people. That’s just 6% of the prison population.

Bigger savings would come if drug courts could actually reduce the number of people going to jail to the point where jails or prisons themselves could shrink. Right now, drug courts are only slowing population growth.

But the state’s top Superior Court Judge Tina Nadeau holds out hope.

“Texas is one example where they started using these evidence-based programs and they actually shut down wings of their prison. So I feel that if Texas can do it, we can do it too.”

But for New Hampshire to do it, it will take commitment and money.

Right now, the cost of New Hampshire’s drug courts is being paid for by a mix of federal grants, county budgets and fundraising non-profits. Long term, Judge Nadeau would like to see the program grow and for the state to pitch in.

The immediate fate of Hillsborough County’s potential drug courts will hinge on the award of federal grants. The county has requested a total of $700,000 for three years. They expect to find out if the money’s coming this summer.

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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