NEW ORLEANS - Hundreds of drug
offenders may clog jails and add millions of dollars in incarceration costs if
proposals to slash the state judiciary budget are approved, according to one
stakeholder in the existing system.
Lars Levy, executive director of the
Louisiana Association of Drug Court Professionals (LADCP), told the Louisiana
Record that plans to slash available funds – which some have warned
would heavily impact drug courts – would be “the complete wrong move."
"What drug courts have done is reduce crime and improve the health of
individuals,” Levy told the Louisiana Record. “It’s also put people back to work, made them
tax-paying citizens again.”
The state House of Representatives
recently voted 98-0 to slash the budget financing the Louisiana Supreme Court
and other parts of the state judiciary. The cuts would be for the fiscal year
starting July 1. Some politicians believe the state’s 50 drug courts would be
most affected if the cuts are sustained by a state Senate review, but other
special programs could suffer as well.
The proposed cuts contained in House
Bill 616 would provide a judicial system budget totaling $164 million, which
would mark a huge spending cut from the $187 million spent during the 2015-2016
Louisiana faces a projected $600
million overall state budget shortfall in its upcoming fiscal year. State
legislators are now examining a proposed $26 billion spending plan, and there
is ongoing political grappling over whether new revenue-generating measures
will be needed to help close the financial gap.
Levy’s association represents the
professionals who administer the 50 drug courts in the state. Under those
programs, local district attorneys decide which non-violent, first-time drug
offenders will be given an opportunity for diversion to drug court rather than
After pleading guilty, selected
offenders appear in drug court, which are locally administered programs that
require frequent and random drug testing, intensive treatment, judicial
oversight, community supervision, and work requirements. If the offenders fail
to adhere to a strict program, they can be sent to jail under the terms of
their original guilty plea. If they complete the 18-month program, the charges
Levy said there are 50 operational
drug courts in Louisiana, with more being added. These include 30 adult, 17
juvenile and three family preservation drug courts serving thousands of people.
Each program has a team led by an unpaid judge, with staff including drug court
coordinators, treatment staff, a prosecutor, a public defender, law enforcement
representatives, a case manager and other administrative staff.
The reason for the proposed
cuts to the drug court program?
“They can’t slash judges’ salaries, so they
would have to look at ancillary programs,” Levy said, adding that offenders are
screened for suitability before being admitted to drug court.
attorneys tend to know these people," he said. "They realize there’s not enough room in
jail and it’s better to treat them (than incarcerate). It’s much better than
putting them on probation and much better than putting them in jail. It costs
$25,000 per year to house a prisoner, and drug court costs $5,000 a year for a
Louisiana does not fund its state
court system with one budget. District, parish and city courts are mainly
funded by local governments. The Louisiana Supreme Court and five courts of
appeal are funded by an annual state legislative appropriation. That
appropriation is also used for the salaries and benefits for all state court
A portion of the salaries of parish
and city court judges, and the compensation of retired and ad hoc
judges, are also funded by the state.
Valerie S. Willard, the deputy judicial administrator of Public Information & Community Relations for the
Louisiana Supreme Court, said she “can’t really say at this point” about the
effects of the proposed budget cuts.
“The budget is just coming out of the
House at this point and still has to go before the Senate," Willard told the Louisiana Record.
Asked if that meant the cuts to the
state’s highest court might be less severe than the House requested once the Senate’s finance committee weighs in, she declined comment.
There is precedent that the budget cuts may
not be so draconian. Last year, the Senate Finance Committee disagreed with a decision to provide a judiciary budget that did not include any
increases. The Senate committee eventually added a $3.5 million increase to the
proposed budget, a total representing half the spending increase sought by the
Supreme Court. That increase was later approved by the full Senate.
For fiscal year 2015-2016, the state
judiciary appropriation totaled $170,603,192. An outline of that judiciary budget can be found in Act 66 of the 2015 Regular Legislative Session, which is
available online at the Louisiana legislative website at www.legis.la.gov.
The Act 66 originally allowed a
budget of $182,664,006, but was reduced by $3,060,814 pursuant to a plan
adopted by the Judicial Budgetary Control Board as approved by the Louisiana
The Louisiana Supreme Court is
audited by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor every two years. The audit report
is available on the Legislative Auditor’s website at www.lla.state.la.us.
The reports compare the budget to actual expenditures and revenues, and break
down revenues and expenditures by categories. The court’s overall financial
data is also provided.
Some Louisiana politicians are
asking for greater operating efficiencies and new structures for state
institutions rather than raising taxes to cover the shortfall. The haggling is
anticipated to continue until shortly before the legislature’s regular session
ends on June 6.