Drug court left in limbo

Mikel Kowalcyk was caught two years ago with cocaine. The 37-year-old had been doing drugs for more than two decades, but it was the first time she’d been arrested.

When she appeared in court, she said, a judge offered her two choices: Spend 20 days in jail or a year or more participating in drug court, an intensive drug rehabilitation program.

Kowalcyk chose drug court.

“I wanted to stop using,” she said.

Kowalcyk graduated from drug court in July — clean for the first time in her adult life.

If she’d been arrested today, she would have had no choice but jail. She would have served her time, and believes she probably would have returned to drugs when she was released.

Snohomish County drug court officials stopped accepting participants early this month because they’re not sure the program will still be around come January, when a new county budget cycle begins.

County leaders say all government programs, services and jobs could be cut by up to 9 percent to balance a budget that has seen revenues mauled by the ailing economy. The five-member County Council hasn’t said exactly which programs might go, but drug court officials say they are worried because the program is not mandated by law.

“At 2.5 percent cut, maybe we could scale back,” said Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden, who presides over drug court. “But at 5 percent or more, we’d have to cut drug court.”

The council asked Superior Court to suggest cuts totaling up to $2 million from the court’s $26.3 million budget, according to a memo sent Monday from court administrator Bob Terwilliger to court officials.

Terwilliger told Bowden and other judges that they shouldn’t assume nonmandatory programs such as drug court will be funded after January.

“We are committed to trying to maintain the drug courts, but can only do so if funding is available,” Terwilliger said.

The state covers some of drug court’s costs, but not enough to continue running the full program, Bowden said.

Drug court serves about 150 people at any given time, Bowden said. More than 360 people have graduated from the 12-month program since it began with federal seed money in 1999. The program cost the county about $475,000 last year. County Executive Aaron Reardon recommended in his budget proposal that drug court funding increase to about $505,000 in 2009.

The council threw out Reardon’s budget proposal last month after many of the county’s elected leaders complained that they weren’t included in budget talks. Reardon has asked the council to continue funding drug court, said Christopher Schwarzen, Reardon’s spokesman.

The council has asked every department to submit separate budget proposals with cuts of 7 percent and 9 percent, said councilman Dave Gossett, chairman of the law and justice committee. Revenue predictions seem to be worsening by the day, he said, and even if the economy turns around quickly, it won’t be fast enough to save the county’s 2009 budget from a big hit, he said.

The council probably will come up with a dollar amount that must be trimmed, and ask each department head to decide where cuts should be made, he said.

“Drug court is an extremely valuable program and I would prefer not to see it cut,” Gossett said. “But they understand their budget better than I do. All I can do is tell them how much money there is.”

Drug court costs Snohomish County taxpayers about $7,700 per person for 18 months in the program. It’s designed to take just one year, but most participants stick around for an extra six months to be sure they’ve really kicked the bad habits and formed new, good ones, Bowden said.

Time in the county jail costs about $80 per day, or about $29,000 per year, Bowden said. State prison costs about $27,000 per year.

Many criminals who enter drug court are repeat offenders facing several years in prison, he said. Taxpayers spend tens of thousands of dollars to keep them there, but when they’re released they often return to the same bad behavior, Bowden said. Cars are stolen, homes are burglarized, bank accounts are hacked. Before long, the criminals often wind up right back in court and then in prison, where taxpayers must foot the bill yet again, Bowden said.

Drug courts nationwide are much more successful at reforming criminals than standard prison time, Bowden said, and Snohomish County’s program is among the best. So far, 7 percent of all local drug graduates wound up back in trouble, compared with up to 70 percent in other rehab programs, Bowden said.

The stories of drug court graduates show other ways the program saves money. Bowden knows of mothers who have regained custody of children who previously were in state-funded foster care. People who were on welfare while they were addicts have found jobs and become self-sufficient.

The problem is that the county government doesn’t realize those savings, Bowden said. Using drug court to keep a person out of prison saves the state $29,000 a year, Bowden said. That’s equivalent to the annual wages of somebody working full-time at a job paying nearly $14 an hour.

Kowalcyk, the drug court graduate, said she would still be spiraling down in addiction were it not for the court’s program. As vice president of the Snohomish County Drug Court Alumni Association, she encourages other graduates to speak out in favor of the program she believes saved her life.

For years, she said, she did little to benefit society.

“Now I’m a full-time student with a job,” she said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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