KAI RYSSDAL: May is usually graduation month. Not just for college and university students, but for people who have been through the country's 1,700 drug courts. Being rehabilitated, not punished. Despite tight budgets, politicians everywhere are all but throwing money at those courts. Maryland's governor wants to add a zero to his drug-court line item and make it $8 million. The White House wants to increase funding from $10 million $70 million. We sent Marketplace's Jeff Tyler down to Orange County, California, to find out why.
[Sound of clapping]
JEFF TYLER: Drug courts operate in an alternate judicial universe. Clapping and cheering from the peanut-gallery is encouraged by Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley.
JUDGE WENDY LINDLEY: Since many of these individuals have never graduated from anything in their lives - not high school or anything else -- our graduation is a big deal.
Sounds like summer camp. Except for the hand-cuffs.
LINDLEY: Come on up, Pat, and bring your family with you.
Pat — or Patrick — asked us to keep his last name private. Originally, Patrick got busted for possession of meth - a felony. Instead of prison, he opted for drug court. Judge Lindley had been warned against him.
LINDLEY: I was told by others that I shouldn't take Patrick into the court because he was a person who was never going to be capable of telling the truth and accomplishing anything in our program.
Not everyone qualifies for drug court. No violent offenders. And the guy who sells drugs strictly for business? He doesn't get a pass. The program specifically targets addicts, who drain resources as they rotate between hospitals, courts and jails.
It is the mission statement of drug courts to break that cycle. Judge Lindley points to Patrick as proof of results.
LINDLEY: Patrick has reached the point where, in some ways, he's more responsible than some of the staff.
Facing a packed courtroom on graduation day, Patrick struggled to read his speech.
PATRICK: Hopefully you can use my case as an example. [Sniffles] Oh, for the love of Pete.' [Laughter].
His public defender does just that. Her words to Patrick were also directed at the new prisoners listening from their holding cell.
PUBLIC DEFENDER: Anyone who's thinking about coming into drug court who has had fallen out of other programs or fell down in your life. Have had 15 or so years of addiction, like Pat has had. Don't give up on yourself . . . It's a tough program. It's not easy. But it works. The statistics will show you that.
2005 statistics from the Government Accountability Office show drug courts significantly reduce the number of people who are arrested again. Drug court costs as much as $5,000 per person. Prison can run $25,000. Given the favorable economics, I asked retired judge Karen Freeman-Wilson, CEO at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, why don't we see more drug courts?
KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: There's a sentiment that you should be tough on crime. And that to be tough on crime means jail. When you talk to drug court participants, however, they will tell you that it is much easier to do time than it is to do a drug court program.
Patrick is living proof. He tried drug court once before but couldn't take it.
PATRICK: I chose to opt out, and just go ahead and do my prison time. Upon being released from prison, I pretty much went straight back into drugs.
Judge Lindley says she started her drug court over 10 years ago because she felt the judicial system had failed. But her peers were dismissive.
LINDLEY: . . . One of them, in a judges meeting, turned to me, pointed his finger at me, yelled at me and said, "You're nothing but a social worker in a black robe." At that point in time I said, Thank you!, but it wasn't meant to be a compliment.
Consider the results. In drug court, Patrick was forced to get a full-time job.
PATRICK:"If you don't have a 40-hour a week job, you can't advance further."
If someone comes to court five minutes late? The penalty might be an essay or community service.
Judge Lindley also gives away rewards. Each week, she raffles off small perks, like movie tickets, for those who meet their obligations.
LINDLEY: The first time we did that I felt a little bit strange doing a raffle in court.
But in the end, it was money and a career that motivated Patrick.
PATRICK: You know, I wouldn't have the opportunity to grow in this field because I would have felonies. And when you have felonies, the state won't grant you a real estate license.
Upon graduation, the drug felony gets erased.
PROSECUTOR: People make a motion to dismiss.
LINDLEY: Congratulations, Pat.
Patrick currently has a job with a mortgage company. He's studying for his real estate license and takes the exam at the end of May.
I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.