Drug courts touted before Oklahoma legislative panel

Thursday, January 15th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Drug courts could be a valuable tool for reducing the prison population, cutting demand for drugs and rehabilitating offenders, a prosecutor told a state legislative panel Thursday.

The Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, which is considering a proposal to increase funding to allow expansion of drug court programs, heard testimony from Kelly Basey, assistant district attorney for Oklahoma County.

The Oklahoma County program, which has more than 100 participants, concentrates on those with repeat felony convictions.

``We're talking about people who have been going through that revolving door over and over and over,'' Basey said.

Still, she said, nine out of 10 participants do not repeat their offenses after completing drug court.

After the preliminary success, the county would like to expand the program to include 500 participants next year and eventually let 1,000 people into the program, Basey said. To make that possible, the county would need more additional funding for a second assistant district attorney, two clerks and perhaps an additional judge.

A total of 21 Oklahoma counties have drug court programs. Last year, total funding for the programs was about $3 million, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.

Oklahoma County works with federal investigators to go after dealers and manufacturers, but the drug court offers a different angle by targeting buyers, she said.

``If you can reduce the demand, then the supply's going to go away,'' Basey said.

In most cases, participants would otherwise face jail time, but instead are diverted into rehab programs. Many who successfully finish drug court have the cases against them dismissed.

Besides taking offenders out of prison, the court also can save the state money, according to data compiled by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.

Using statistics on the 1,666 drug court participants between July 2001 and June 2003, the center estimates Oklahoma can save $45.6 million over four years by putting offenders in drug court instead of prison. By contrast, drug courts cost $4.3 million more than probation over four years, but standard probation does not include any rehabilitation aimed specifically at stopping drug usage.

The statistics also suggested drug court is more successful at stopping repeat offenses. In the two years studied, drug court graduates had a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent. Among released prison inmates, nearly 8 percent were jailed again.

The program is flexible, too, as those who break the rules of the drug court can be sent to jail.

Bob Ravitz, a commission member and chief public defender for Oklahoma City, said he'd like to see further evaluation of the success rates of drug courts before making any decisions on expanding the programs. That way, he said, officials can make sure ``what doesn't work gets thrown out.''

``It may be that in some area, something's working and in other areas it's not,'' Ravitz said. ``In rural areas, something might work that doesn't work in Oklahoma City or Tulsa.''