Drug Courts – pt. 2

Part 2 in a serial describing what happens inside New Hampshire's drug courts.

White was joining 17 others in a two-year-long program aimed at making these drug convictions his last ones.  In the first 90 days he would be under intense supervision, submitting to four or more drug tests a week, along with random searches and unannounced visits by community corrections officers.  He would have individual therapy sessions and would also attend classes and group therapy sessions for three hours a day, three days a week.  On top of that, he would have to stand before Judge Vaughan in the amphitheater each week, accounting for his behavior.

If he did well, after the first three months the restrictions would be loosened until, after two years, he was ready to live on his own.  That probably wouldn’t happen – many participants take longer to get through the first phase.  Many will suffer relapses or fail to follow Vaughan’s orders and end up in shackles at the side table after spending the week – or longer – in the County House of Corrections next door.  A few will need a stint in a residential facility, where supervision and treatment are even more intense.

After serving time in jail, most offenders in New Hampshire have a better than 42 percent chance of returning.  White and the other young people in this courtroom run an even greater risk because of their drug and alcohol problems.  Judges across the nation have run into the same problem.  In the words of one New Hampshire prosecutor, these offenders “flush in and flush out” of the court system, serving their sentence only to offend again.

Sitting in his office after White’s guilty pleas, Vaughan described the problem.  “They go to jail, they come back, they go to jail, they come back,” he said.  “They’re always in the system — on parole, on probation, in jail.”

Stopping that cycle has payoffs, literally, according to Vaughan.  “Every time I send someone to the County House of Corrections,” Vaughan had said in an earlier interview, “it costs $26,000 a year to house them.  When I send someone to state prison it costs the state $33-$38,000 a year.  The average cost of someone in drug court is $8-$12,000.”

Vaughan has been a judge for seven years and a lawyer in private practice for 28 years before that.  He notes that there are obstacles to starting more drug courts in New Hampshire.  While lack of funding is a major one, new drug courts require the acceptance of judges, prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys, which isn’t easy to get.  Drug courts are also far from perfect.  As for participants who fail the program, Vaughan said simply, “Tons of them.”  Two of his participants even ran off to join a carnival travelling the country before turning themselves in.  “They won’t all make it.”

Nonetheless, Vaughan believes that drug court has the power to redirect the lives of people who would otherwise end up in the county jail or the state prison.  As a rule, the criminal justice system has focused on punishment, rather than giving inmates the skills needed to change their lives.  But growing prison populations and the associated costs have prompted a change.  The state now spends $104 million a year on corrections, up from $59 million in 2000.


Afterword: Even as I paste this in I want to rewrite it. This segment reads like something out of a newspaper – which is where I initially hoped to publish this series.  However, freed from the constraints of that medium I now want to rework it.


(Photo: Creative Commons: Jimmy Grim)

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