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Texas's DIVERT Court Saves Taxpayer Money, Keeps People Out of Prison

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August 15, 2008

Earlier this year, the Pew Center for the States reported that more than 1 of every 100 American adults is in jail or prison. That totals approximately 2.3 million adults.

NPR reported today on one program that could help solve America’s huge incarceration problem. Texas sends many people to “DIVERT” Court, a system that pushes first-time, low-level non-violent offenders—especially those arrested for minor drug possession offenses—through rehab and treatment programs instead of the through the criminal justice system and into prison.

Texas has a prison population of 157,000, a number that’s expected to balloon in the next few years if it continues to incarcerate at its current rate. NPR reports:

Two studies by Southern Methodist University show that DIVERT Court cuts the recidivism rate by 68 percent over the regular Texas criminal justice courts. For every dollar spent on the court, $9 are saved in future criminal justice costs.

…The expanding prison population is a financial red stain spreading across the state’s books like the Andromeda Strain, [Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano), Chairman of the House Corrections Committee] says. Each new maximum security prison costs Texas taxpayers $300 million to build and $40 million a year to operate.

State officials estimate that unless changes are made, Texas will need 17,000 more prison beds just four years from now. Releasing prisoners on parole is politically untenable — which makes “diversion” an increasingly appealing way to avoid what’s looking like a $2 billion invoice.

You can’t argue with numbers like that. The DIVERT Court has been such a success that officials are hoping to expand it beyond first-time offenders. Jody Kent, Public Policy Coordinator for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says:

Too many non-violent offenders are sent to prison because of deeply flawed sentencing policies, which are costing taxpayers millions of dollars and not addressing the heart of the problem. Programs such as the DIVERT court provide a sound, less costly alternative that has proved to be successful in reducing recidivism, and should be adopted in every city in the country.

Thanks to the “War on Drugs,” incarceration of non-violent drug offenders has increased 1,100 percent since 1980; the current population of such offenders stands at nearly half a million. That’s almost a quarter of the current total national prison population.

Jag Davies, Policy Researcher for the ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project, says:

We are at a remarkable moment in history that presents an opportunity for systemic change. The confluence of ballooning state prison populations, budget shortfalls, and a newfound political willingness to be “smart-on-crime,” are presenting unprecedented opportunities to halt the ever-increasing population of incarcerated drug law offenders. Most of these individuals have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity, and do not belong in prison. With more humane and effective alternatives available, such as the DIVERT program in Texas, it is imperative that policymakers implement alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders as soon as possible. State and local agencies carry the brunt of enforcing, prosecuting, and incarcerating drug offenders, yet it is also state and local budgets that are being squeezed tightest by the current economic downturn. Both fiscally and in terms of overall public safety, the U.S. can no longer afford the status quo.

Texas taxpayers should be gratified to know that their policymakers are looking for innovative, responsible ways to keep the prison population low, while still keeping the public safe. Diversion programs save both taxpayer money now and in the future, and benefits those who need it most.

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