Drug Courts: Costly Up Front, Money-Saving in the Long Run

Aug 7, 2015

Local and national politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have called for reforms aimed at reducing America’s prison and jail populations, particularly nonviolent offenders like drug users.

In a speech earlier this month to the NAACP, President Obama said the U.S. needs to fund more drug courts.

In 2014 the average cost to incarcerate each person was $33,000 a year. - Rachel Antonuccio

“Roughly one-third of the Justice Department’s budget now goes toward incarceration,” says Obama. “Every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t spend going after drug kingpins, or tracking down terrorists, or hiring more police and giving them the resources that would allow them to do a more effective job community policing.”

The drug court model came to Iowa in 1996, when the first court was set up in Polk County. Then in 2000, then-Governor Tom Vilsack called for more courts to be started across the state, and they were often launched with federal grant money.

Since 2001, more than 1100 offenders have graduated from adult drug courts across Iowa. They’ve turned out to be very popular among prosecutors, judges, and community leaders. Yet despite this, these courts have experienced sluggish legislative funding and are now in jeopardy. The drug court in Council Bluffs that takes offenders from nine Southwest Iowa counties is set to close October 1, and advocates say two regional drug courts, covering 14 Southeast Iowa counties as well as Burlington and Ottumwa are also at risk of closing.

In this River to River segment, Ben Kieffer talks with Rachel Antonuccio, an attorney in the juvenile division of the Iowa City Public Defender’s Office and member of the Johnson County Family Treatment Court team.

Looking at the benefits I've seen people achieve in family treatment court, I think it makes absolute financial sense to invest in these courts. - Rachel Antonuccio

“I think folks are a little bit short sighted when it comes to looking at the long term potential benefits of specialized courts,” she says. “Yes, they are labor and time intensive and they cost money up front.”

But, Antonuccio says, drug courts can also save money by keeping people out of the prison system. She tells the story of a client who was facing prison time for methamphetamine charges.  

“I estimate he spent four years in prison in Iowa. In 2014 the average cost to incarcerate each person was $33,000 a year. This guy spent four years in prison so that’s roughly $150,000. He could’ve funded my family treatment court, that has 10 participants and two staff people, for two to three years.”

“Looking at that and looking at the benefits I’ve seen people achieve in family treatment court, I think it makes absolute financial sense to invest in these courts.”