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Slimantics: Legislature: Just say 'no' to drug courts

 

Slim Smith

 

Our elected officials have had plenty to say recently about the need for Mississippi to improve its education. 

 

A good place to start would be at the Legislature itself, which seems to have no grasp of the basic concepts of math. 

 

Earlier this week, the state drug courts advisory committee said it would have to cut its projected budget by 42 percent, a savings of $3.3 million, primarily because the system has expanded to all counties but the necessary funding has remained unchanged. All our legislators heard, apparently, was the "save $3.3 million" part. The folks in Jackson absolutely love "savings" of this sort, especially since it deals with people they view as undesirables. The pompous moralists who run this state would rather lose an arm than do anything that might be perceived as being "soft on criminals." 

 

What suffers most in this sort of thinking is common sense. 

 

People assigned to drug court undergo treatment and counseling, combined with frequent court appearances. Those who complete the program can see charges dismissed or sentences and fines reduced. By its own estimates, the state's drug court system saves the state saves $38 million in inmate housing and other expenses. 

 

OK. Here's the math part: If drug court funding is cut by 42 percent, it is reasonable to expect that the cost of housing inmates will rise by roughly the same proportion, right? OK, class. How much extra money will the state be spending on inmate housing as a result of the cuts to the drug court program?  

 

We will pause here long enough for our legislators to try to locate a passage in The Good Book, make phone calls to ALEC officials in Washington, examine where the moss grows on trees or any other source material they regularly consult when faced with what is, for them, a difficult question. 

 

Fifth-graders and normal citizens are asked to sit quietly as our geniuses at the Capitol do their cipherin'. 

 

And the answer is: $15,960,000. 

 

It should be noted that our brighter legislators, the number of which can be counted without having to take your shoes off, saw the penny-wise, pound-foolish nature of underfunding the drug courts and tried to pass legislation to provide adequate funding. We know how that turned out, of course.  

 

So in the end, our leaders decided it would be a wise move to cut $3 million and spend $16 million. Brilliant, huh? The legislature has dug another financial hole and this one is $13 million deep. 

 

Meanwhile, there is an unconfirmed report that Mississippi Public Broadcasting has decided to shelf a project for a new game show called "Are Your Smarter Than A Mississippi Legislator?" on the grounds that the answer is self-evident. 

 

The drug court advisory committee hasn't given up hope, though. They have asked Gov. Phil Bryant to include funding for the drug courts if and when he calls a special session of the Legislature to address the state's Medicaid Funding crisis. They have received no answer from the Governor's office, mainly because the Gov. has called and left several messages for Mike Huckabee, but Huckabee has yet to respond to tell him what to do. 

 

So, for now, it appears the governor and legislature is content to cut the drug court program and crowd a few more thousand drug offenders into a state prison system that is already overcrowded and over budget. 

 

This is a bad move on many levels and the costs are likely even higher than the basic math equation indicates. Instead of being herded into our prison system, which serves as sort of a College for Criminals, drug offenders processed through the drug courts have an opportunity to get clean, get educated and get a job. That's right: They wind up having a real chance at becoming productive members of society and -- get this! -- actual taxpayers.  

 

Even those who hold drug users in complete contempt ­-- those who spend their lives consumed with the fear that somebody's gettin' away with somethin' -- must admit that the drug court system is a bargain, economically. 

 

The issue really is simple math. 

 

But apparently not simple enough.

 

Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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