Every year the Utah Legislature must decide how to divide the annual budget among many different programs. This task becomes even more difficult when there are budget shortfalls. This year's deficit provides a particularly difficult challenge.

Drug courts should be a funding priority for the Legislature. Drug courts take a unique approach to the problem of substance abuse and seek not merely to punish behavior but change it. Criminals who participate in these courts are sanctioned or rewarded over time, based on their behavior. The courts make use of numerous social programs, including counselors, medical professionals and job services. The result is that drug users who would otherwise continue to commit crimes develop the skills necessary to become productive members of the community. What began as a single court in Florida during the 1980s has become a global phenomenon because of its successes.

The economic and social impact of drug courts in Utah is impressive. Studies show that crime rates tend to increase during times of economic difficulty. There is therefore an extraordinary need to make drug court funding a priority this year.

Drug courts are one of the most financially viable social programs. Among criminal justice programs, there simply are none better. In Salt Lake County, every dollar invested in the drug court program yields a return of about $4.29. In times when every dollar counts, drug courts certainly live up to their reputation. By making drug court funding a priority, legislators show tremendous judgment when it comes to dollars and cents.

There are also impressive social benefits of the drug court program. Recent statistics show that drug courts reduce crime nationwide by an average of 10 percent to 14 percent. Locally, that number is just above 10 percent.

Drug courts do much more than merely keep criminals off the streets for awhile. They attempt to keep them off the streets indefinitely. No other state program has proven as effective at reducing crime associated with drug abuse.

Some argue that drug users should not be rehabilitated but merely imprisoned. This is evident in part by the fact that nearly 85 percent of prison inmates were convicted on crimes associated with substance abuse. However, statistics show that when drug users do no more than serve their time, they re-offend at astronomically high rates. At a time when prisoners in Utah are being released early due to budget shortages, drug courts become an indispensable tool. They not only lessen the immediate impact on jails and prisons but also make a significant dent in the number of prisoners who consistently re-offend.

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The Utah Legislature has many tough decisions to make this year. Although there is a temptation to cut numerous programs, drug courts should be viewed as a funding priority. No other criminal justice program yields economic returns as impressive as those seen in drug courts. In addition, the social advantages of drug courts are impressive as well. Recidivism rates are significantly lowered, strain on prisons is lessened and streets become safer. Drug courts make sense.

By making funding for drug courts a priority, the Legislature will get $4 worth of benefits for every $1 it invests. This would be a tremendous asset to Utah taxpayers.

Kurt Manwaring of Taylorsville has worked with the drug court program in Utah and has published academic articles dealing with substance abuse.