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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pay now, or pay later

While the poor, the weak and the young will pay for the state's budget shortfall, there's one constituency that can count on regular public subsidies prison inmates.

It costs taxpayers $50,735 to clothe, feed and house one prisoner for one year. That's nearly five times the cost of one year of public education for a child.

Surely investing in alternatives to keep non-violent offenders out of prison and off the public dime without sacrificing public safety makes solid fiscal and social sense. It's also the right thing to do.

That's why it's encouraging that House Bill 2000 would restore $1.5 million to the state Judiciary's budget, which should help prevent the most drastic cuts to a proven solution: the state's 11 treatment courts, especially the adult, juvenile and family drug courts. These courts provide a carrot rehabilitation treatment and other support, along with a stick immediate, short-term punishment for violating the terms of the program.

It's a combination that works. Proponents say drug courts have cut recidivism rates to about 8 percent, compared to federal estimates of 50 percent for probationers in regular court systems. And the price is right: roughly $7,000 to $10,000 per year per client, assuming they successfully complete the program which most of them do.

Of course, there are drawbacks. The treatment courts can handle only a fraction of those in the system. O'ahu's adult drug court took 113 clients last year; there were 1,681 regular drug cases in the First Circuit for the same period. And it's more expensive initially; factoring out prison time and other expenses, the cost per Circuit Court case can be as low as $567.

Of course, this cost is usually much higher; and besides, money is not the only issue here. It's making our judicial system work effectively. And there's no better example than successful treatment court clients, rescued from the depths of their addictions to becomes full and productive members of our community.