Down the stairs from the main courtroom in the Orange County Courthouse, Courtney Kennedy sits behind a wooden desk surrounded by four bare walls and answers a call from one of her clients.

“There’s a lot on the line, your kids are on the line,” cautions Kennedy. “Your children will slip down this hill with you. Don’t continue to repeat that behavior. You have to prioritize what is most important to you. You need support.”

But it’s Kennedy, the Drug Court Coordinator in Judicial District 15B since 2003, who isn’t getting the support she needs.

Her job is one of 32 that the N.C. General Assembly will cut if the budget survives Gov. Perdue’s veto, which is likely. The budget eliminates all $2 million in annual funding for Drug Treatment Courts statewide, leaving county governments to fund the court’s coordinator positions. While the court technically will continue, it will have to do so without vital coordinators and instead be run by overloaded probation officers, prosecutors and judges.

Those offenders enrolled in the program will remain on probation but will have to seek treatment through other programs.

Drug Treatment Courts, which began in North Carolina in 1995 and expanded in 2001, operate on referrals from the traditional courts, alternative sentencing programs and probation officers. They are geared toward nonviolent, high-risk, repeat drug offenders, most of whom have been charged with misdemeanors.

While the budget cuts are ostensibly intended to save the state money, defunding the Drug Treatment Court will actually cost money.

Statewide, 21 adult and four juvenile drug treatment courts served 1,402 people in the 2009–10 fiscal year. The Administrative Office of the Courts estimates that it would have cost $4.9 million to process those same people in traditional courtrooms. Drug Treatment Courts save $4,000–$12,000 per offender, according to the AOC.

District 15B Chief Judge Joe Buckner says the Drug Treatment Court reduces the need for 3,000 jail beds each year. That’s a savings of up to $75 million, based on figures provided by the Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission stating that each additional 1,000 beds amounts to a cost of $25 million to $30 million to build or maintain the prisons.

The problem is exacerbated in District 15B, where the Orange Correctional Center is often at its 180-person capacity and where Chatham County has room for just 55 beds.

“The danger we’ve got in Orangeforget the state issues for a minutewe as of June 30, if we don’t act quickly, we are in danger of losing a tool that can help manage our daily jail population,” Buckner says.

That’s not to mention the financial drain jail time exacts on family members of the offenders, whereas in the Drug Treatment Court offenders can still work.

“The whole point of this court is to stop that revolving door of folks going in and out of prison all because they have never received treatment,” says Kennedy. “These folks got here because of the way they’ve been thinking for so long.”

Wendy Ray used to be on the other end of Kennedy’s telephone line.

After two DWI arrests, one in 2001 and the other in 2006, Ray violated her probation by spending money on drugs that should have gone to pay court fees.

“I started using probably early in the ’90s,” says Ray, who “was addicted to basically all drugs.”

“I was able to maintain for a long period of time. It didn’t really seem to cause that much of an issue, but as it progressed, when you are in addiction the things you think are acceptable or unacceptable change, so you don’t realize how bad things are until it’s really bad.”

Ray lost her $40,000-a-year accounting job and was facing jail time that would have separated her from her three children when she opted in to the Drug Treatment Court in 2009.

For a year, she was subject to random drug tests at least three times a week. She lived in a residential treatment program, met weekly with Kennedy and followed a 6 p.m. curfew. She says she learned to take responsibility for her actions whereas before Drug Court she blamed her problems on others.

“It gave me the opportunity to change my life, and I probably would not have changed my life,” says Ray, who is taking classes to become a peer support specialist connecting former inmates with social services.

“Some people want to change, but they don’t know how. This gives them the opportunity and structure.”

In Kennedy’s district, 27 people are enrolled in the program in Orange County; 50 have graduated since 2003. Of those, six have been arrested since completing the program; four were for drug-related crimes.

It’s easier to be kicked out of the program in North Carolina than it is to graduate from it. Last year, 326 participants were forced to leave compared with 218 who completed it.

Participants are rewarded with certificates and medallions for attending meetings, court sessions, classes, and for working and staying sober. If they violate the rules, offenders are punished with additional community service hours or jail time, or they can be kicked out of the program.

Successful participants often go on to halfway houses such as TROSA in Durham or the Healing Place in Raleigh to complete their recovery.

These are the results that Judge Buckner envisioned when he helped establish the court in 2002. “We’ve got an opportunity to say to folks who are continually committing misdemeanors, ‘We are going to help you and support you in your sobriety, but you are going to have to start helping yourself,’” he says.

Court meets twice a month, with two adult sessions in each Orange and Chatham and two family treatment sessions in Orange. Kennedy spends her time counseling clients, attending meetings with the court team, entering data to track current and previous participants, overseeing drug screening, and leveraging and maintaining partnerships, including applying for grants with community nonprofits that help provide treatment.

Buckner says he wouldn’t feel comfortable adjudicating the cases if he didn’t have Kennedy’s summary report detailing test results, living arrangements and other progress.

Buckner is working with the Board of County Commissioners to seek funding for the court, detailing the economics and societal benefits of keeping Kennedy’s position and the court intact.

“If you get rid of the coordinator position, you have to figure out a more creative way to run your court or you’ll have to dissolve it,” Kennedy says.

The lack of funding jeopardizes the court’s partnerships with nonprofits. In Orange, Freedom House could lose a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Grant that was awarded based on collaboration with the Drug Treatment Court.

District Court Judge Beverly Scarlett, who helped start the program while serving as an assistant district attorney and now presides over the court, fears it will be permanently eliminated.

“We’re at the point where we have a good solid team,” she says. “We do not want to lose the momentum that we have, nor do we want to be faced with shutting the court down and then later trying to get it restarted. I fear that would be a near impossibility.”

Scarlett says, “All four of my tires were flattened” when she read the state budget that eliminates funding.

“It was a very sad day, a very long and sad day because we have so many people in our court who are really dependent on this,” she says. “I’m sure for the Legislature, money is the big object, but for me it’s not just about money, it’s about impacting lives one at a time, making sure that parents are able to position themselves to provide for children, to give children valuable lessons they’ve learned so that they won’t make the same mistakes.”

She recalls the first Drug Court graduation ceremony where a participant boasted that she had car payments and rent due. Finally she was stable enough for someone to offer her credit.

“Those are the things that we see on the ground that doesn’t immediately translate to Raleigh,” Scarlett says. “There’s a huge disconnect, and that’s the thing that worries me.”

Intern Rebecca Collins contributed to this story.