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Drug court program helps employers fill jobs

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Brent Benjamin Brent Benjamin

Brent Benjamin has served as a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court since 2005.

It is difficult to forget that weekday afternoon in the Kanawha County courthouse when I held 5-month-old Matthew Haynes in my arms, his thumb in his mouth and quizzical expression on his face. His young mother, Rachel, beamed, proud that her son was born drug-free. A year earlier she faced a jail sentence.

Like many first-time, non-violent drug offenders in West Vest Virginia, Rachel was given a choice: serve time behind bars or agree to participate in a year-long drug court program during which she would be screened for substance abuse, would submit to counseling, report to probation officers, would maintain respectable grades in school and/or hold a job.

Having met so many like Rachel over the years, I can tell you her choosing the drug court program was the far more difficult option. Chances are, had she gone to jail she would have been a repeat offender. Matthew may well not have been born drug-free. Drug court forced her to come to grips with her problem and take responsibility instead of being warehoused in a correctional facility where it is likely she would return to destructive drug use.

Rachel's experience prior to that day I held her baby, unfortunately, is far too common in our state. Employers here often cannot find drug-free hires. A recent study placed a $429 million price tag on substance abuse in West Virginia, roughly a dime for every $1 in the state's general fund. And by the time we have a new governor that figure is projected to be nearly $700 million. 

This past year there were roughly 750 "Rachels" in West Virginia. Their success was supported by a $3.2 million investment in drug courts across our state, saving Mountain State taxpayers the $18 million more it would have cost to incarcerate them. 

But in addition to the budgetary benefit, statistics show that jailed drug offenders have a nearly 80 percent chance of being repeat offenders, perpetuating a cycle of crime that threatens the safety of our citizens and communities. It is a cycle that would impose a burden on West Virginia taxpayers in the tens of millions of dollars annually. 

Data on the drug court program show more than half of participants in the adult drug courts and more than three of five in the juvenile drug courts graduate, just as Rachel did. The data also show that recidivism is less than one-in-10 among adult court graduates and less than two-in-10 in the juvenile program. That breaks the negative repeating cycle of crime. There is the multimillion-dollar savings from diverting offenders into drug courts, and the future costs of crime, prosecutions and incarcerations are dramatically cut. 

These graduates gain self-respect, self-worth and self-esteem. They re-establish their families and their lives. In the case of juveniles, their grade-points go up and their truancy levels go down. Adults become responsible husbands and wives, sons and daughters and, most importantly, moms and dads. They get jobs, pay taxes and look forward to success in their livelihoods, in their families and in their communities. Bad cycles are broken. These courts help West Virginia collectively and West Virginians individually.

One of the reasons the costs for the drug courts is so low is that most of the work in the drug courts is voluntary. Judges, prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, probation officers, counselors and court personnel spend countless extracurricular hours with the drug court process and its participants. The money spent on drug courts primarily is used for drug testing and counseling through contracts with various local mental health providers and the salaries of drug court coordinators who must meet the same qualifications as probation officers. There is one such coordinator per drug court.

With the growing success of drug courts, alumni are helping to inspire those currently in the program meet their challenges. And in the Eastern Panhandle, business leaders in the community serve voluntarily as mentors to the youth enrolled in the program, paired with a drug court participant having interests in their particular business. We hope to duplicate such relationships in other regions of our state.