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 fiscal year.
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 incarceration.
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 are dismissed.
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.
“The district 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 person.”
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 judges.
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 Supreme Court.
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.