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Weak TX Drug Court Oversight Worries Lawmakers, Advocates

Texas lawmakers may shore up a little-known system of courts, called specialty courts.  Voices on both the left and the right are saying that these courts are working — benefiting the state despite being underfunded, uncounted and, at the state level, unmanaged. 

Ana Yañez Correa would like to tell lawmakers how many people benefit from going to drug court. But she can’t, because the data does not exist. Yañez-Correa is the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

"Anything that addresses the issue of substance abuse and mental health in a more therapeutic way is going to be more effective," Yañez Correa said. "Now to what extent the effectiveness is? That’s why it’s important to keep data.”

A bill by State  Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would create a mandate for tracking of these courts. If the measure becomes law, the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would assign legislative committees to provide oversight. The Governor’s Office would keep a central registry and courts that failed to provide data would fail to qualify for state and federal dollars.

Sen. Huffman said, at a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing, that the state has at least 140 specialty courts.  

"But because there’s no requirement that they actually register, we can’t be sure how many are operating," she said.

Marc Levin is with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. He says people who go through this system are less likely to repeat the offense, which saves taxpayers money.  He also says enhancing the specialty court system will build a more productive workforce.

"About 20 percent of Texas adults have a criminal record and we’re seeing the labor market get tighter," Levin said. "In these areas where they’re doing fracking -- they can’t find enough truckers and other staff. Frankly we all benefit when people can overcome a drug habit, overcome a mental illness. Be productive and law abiding. We all have a stake in this."

If an offender doesn’t follow the judge’s orders, then he or she might spend time in jail. But those who do stick to the program can get their records cleared, Levin says.

Texas established the drug court system in the early 1990s for non-violent drug offense cases. They don’t hand out a punishment but instead aim to change the offender’s behavior through recommending intervention and treatment. Other specialty courts include veterans, family, and prostitution courts. Some are for adults, others for juveniles.

The bill has already made it through the Senate. Today, it goes to the House Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers there will have a say.