Louisiana officials want to boost spending on drug courts

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Louisiana officials hope to use millions in settlement money to boost spending on drug courts and substance abuse treatment, which they said would benefit addicts, reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars.

Attorney General Jeff Landry recently announced the state would receive $6.9 million as part of a $573 million settlement with McKinsey & Company, which was accused of profiting from the opioid epidemic. Settlements with other companies blamed for the epidemic that Landry hopes will be resolved within six months could allow Louisiana to increase drug court funding by more than $14 million per year for at least 10-15 years, he said Tuesday.

Officials were unsure how much is spent on drug courts now, but Landry said spending has been slashed in recent years and may be as low as $9 million annually. The new money would be in addition to current spending, supporters said.

“The rate of return is at least threefold, at least three times more than what we spend to incarcerate and sanction,” said Judge Ron Johnson with Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court. “We are trying to be smart on crime.”

The proposal grew out of discussions by the Louisiana Legislature’s Drug and Specialty Court Commission. While there are 75 operational drug and specialty courts in the state, 13 districts don’t have one, and the programs that do exist are dependent on limited resources, the commission said. Proposed legislation would create a dedicated state fund to expand and operate the system.

“Drug courts are problem-solving courts that treat participants’ substance use disorders with the aim of reducing criminal activity,” according to a summary by Landry’s office. “These court programs allow individuals the opportunity to enter long-term drug treatment and agree to court supervision rather than receiving a jail sentence.”

The stated goal is to help offenders break the cycle of addiction and become more productive members of society, which in turn benefits the public as a whole. The settlement money will pay for testing, assessing, supervising and treating participants, officials said.

Offenders accused of violent crimes “technically” are not eligible, Johnson said, though he suggested a “pilot program” could allow district attorneys to decide whether certain violent offenders are worth the risk.

Landry, a Republican, stressed the bipartisan support for the proposed legislation. State Rep. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat who described herself as a former addict who has been clean for more than 25 years, joked that she was in favor of the proposal in spite of Landry’s support.

She also said lawmakers need to find additional ways to support residents with addiction and other mental health issues.

“We’ve got to do more when we have more funds available to us,” Marcelle said. “I’m excited about this first step.”

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