Donna Decker Morris

Donna Decker Morris (Stan Godlewski photo / March 19, 2013)

Perhaps the most successful method America's criminal justice system has come up with to help treat addicts, keep low-level non-violent drug offenders out of prison and save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars is the drug court.

Connecticut used to have full-time drug courts, but not anymore. They were killed off to "save money" during a 2002 state budget crisis. What's replaced them is a part-time system of "drug intervention dockets" that judicial officials claim is more efficient.

Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice advisor, says that "no one disputes the value of drug courts." But he insists Connecticut is doing more in different ways to keep non-violent drug defendants out of prison. "We think we do it, just not in the off-the-shelf way that other states do it."

Not everyone who knows Connecticut's court and prison system is convinced.

"The idea you can do this on the cheap and get the same results as we used to in the old drug courts is erroneous," says Jim Chase, a 23-year veteran of the New Haven Public Defender's Office.

Donna Decker Morris is an associate professor and director of legal studies at the University of New Haven. She argues that Connecticut's current part-time program for dealing with non-dangerous drug offenders simply isn't enough.

"Expanding that approach would certainly make sense," Decker Morris says.

The traditional drug-court system used in many states (and now being tried out in some federal districts, including Connecticut's) involves intensive, coordinated, comprehensive teams of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and support staffers.

Those teams use a "carrot-and-stick" approach on non-violent drug offenders. The choice is: accept and stay with a program that can include addiction treatment, mental health services, medical treatment, education and job training and strict monitoring by the court staff; or suffer penalties that can range right up to prison terms.

Evidence that drug courts work is overwhelming, according to a 2010 report by the National Center for Policy Analysis. Studies in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky and California show offenders who go through drug court programs have significantly lower rates of returning to jail, more success at staying clean or sober, and cost taxpayers far less than sending them to prison.

Those prison costs are immense.

An estimate by the VERA Center on Sentencing and Corrections put the total cost of incarcerating one inmate for a year in Connecticut at more than $50,000. That study found the overall cost of the corrections system for taxpayers in this state at about $929.4 million, including fringe benefits and pensions for prison workers.

Connecticut's Department of Corrections reported in July 2012 that our prison population was at 16,591; and that 67 percent of those prisoners were black or Hispanic. The huge racial disparity (which is a national phenomenon) is one reason critics argue that the War on Drugs has been a tragedy for America's minority communities.

Experts say that about one-quarter of all state inmates have been convicted of drug-related crimes, and more than half of all federal prisoners have drug convictions.

Chase says that during the years when Connecticut had full-time drug courts it cost between $7,000 and $8,000 a year to have a person go through the drug court system — a far cry from that $50,000-per-year cost of keeping them locked up.

Between 1996 and 2001, according to a legislative research report, Connecticut had traditional drug courts in its four biggest cities: New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Hartford. "The Judicial Department decided to terminate the courts in 2002 to save money," the legislative report states.

Right now, the state has "drug intervention dockets" in three courts: New Haven, Bridgeport and Danielson. The major difference between these one-day-a-week or one-day-a-month sessions and the old drug courts is that the new system uses regular court staffs and doesn't have as much in the way of dedicated support from other agencies like police and public defenders.

Although hard statistics for all three districts weren't available, those dockets took care of something like 125 people charged with drug-related offenses last year.

Larry D'Orsi, the Judicial Department's deputy director for criminal matters, says the court support division spent more than $1.1 million last year to pay for 18 in-patient beds for treatment and 109 outpatient treatment slots for people going through the state's drug intervention docket program.

New Haven was the busiest of the part-time drug courts in 2012, with 74 people going through the system, D'Orsi says. Of those, 39 successfully completed the court-supervised alternative programs.