Is that a glimmer of criminal justice reform tucked into the new state budget plan?

Following its release last week, Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal stoked controversy for its deep cuts to education and social services. But it could present some promising changes for criminal justice and public safety.

If approved, the budget would allocate $7.2 million to re-establish drug treatment courts from 2013–2015. This reverses the funding cuts incurred by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2011.

In his announcement, McCrory declared that drug courts can “help break the cycle of addiction that gives rise to violence and the breakdowns of families in our communities.”

Drug treatment courts offer a cheaper alternative to traditional prison sentencing. The National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, associates drug courts with lower re-arrest and recidivism rates and lower costs. Cost/benefit studies indicate public savings of $4,000 to $12,000 per participant, according to the N.C. Administrative Courts (NCAOC) website.

Drug courts take a holistic approach to rehabilitation, says Peter Baker, assistant director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center, a county agency in Durham. Combining intensive community supervision with long-term treatment plans, drug courts provide nonviolent offenders with an array of services, including GED preparation classes, job training, housing services, mental health assistance, family counseling and child abuse services.

According to Baker, court-mandated drug programs are more effective than comparable outpatient treatment programs, because drug court participants submit to regular drug screening and face immediate sanctions or receive rewards based on their behavior.

Prior to cuts in 2011, the state operated 45 drug courts for adults, families and juveniles. If approved, the budget could restore suspended courts or create new ones, though Baker says counties haven’t been informed how the funds would be distributed locally.

The NCAOC detailed its position in a statement, saying the agency “supports the reinstatement of Drug Treatment Courts if and only if all other Judicial Branch priorities are met and if new funds are appropriated to operate the courts.”

The move to restore drug courts is likely a response to North Carolina’s Justice Reinvestment Act, enacted in June 2011. Its goal is to reduce the state’s prison population and reinvest in community-based corrections, such as expanding the authority of probation and parole officers.

In this vein, McCrory also recommended closing five state prisons throughout 2013, producing $54 million in public savings over two years. $20 million of this savings is slated for community-based supervision.

Four of the prisons are men’s correctional centers in rural counties: Wayne, Bladen, Duplin and Robeson. The fifth is Western Youth Institution, a male juvenile correctional facility in Burke County.

Some of these facilities are outdated and would need costly renovations to keep running, according to Pamela Walker, deputy director of communications for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Western Youth Institution, for example, is a narrow, 16-story high-rise facility built in 1972. Closing the prison will save $16 million, as opposed to the $26 million cost of renovating it.

The inmates will be redistributed “carefully” based on their needs to other prisons with available space, Walker says.

“We also try as best as possible to get them close to family,” she says, since many families struggle with the time and cost of traveling regularly visit their incarcerated relatives.

While reinstating drug courts would create 45 jobs each year, closing the prisons could result in more than 700 job cuts, according to DPS staff numbers online. “We as an agency will do everything we can to find a place for them,” says Walker.

The closures would decrease prisoner capacity by about 2,000. However, prison population trends show that about this many inmates, on average, were released from prison each month in 2012. North Carolina’s prison population is declining and expected to eventually level off, according to 10–year projections by the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.

According to the commission’s report, “The lower projected prison population can be attributed primarily to three factors: a decreasing rate of growth for North Carolina’s population (particularly for males ages 16–24, the group most likely to be arrested), continued nationwide declines in crime trends, and policy changes.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Treatment, not punishment.”