Louisiana bill would use opioid settlement funds to expand drug courts

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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Courts that help Louisiana’s addicts could soon get more help of their own.

Newly proposed legislation would craft a dedicated fund for operating and expanding drug courts. The facilities allow users to avoid jailtime by getting treatment and supervision.

“To be able to beef up and make these courts even better, I can’t tell you how excited I am,” state Sen. Rick Ward (R-Port Allen) said at a news conference announcing the proposal Tuesday.

“I’m excited about this first step,” said state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge), touting the idea’s bipartisan support. “Any time that we can do something to make people safer, to make people healthier, to cut down on recidivism — I am all on board.”

The dollars would come from settlements with companies accused of enabling opioid abuse. Attorney General Jeff Landry most recently announced in February the state would get $6.9 million from McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm cited for promoting the drugs. Landry projects upcoming settlements could bolster drug court funds by more than $14 million a year for at least the next decade.

“This is an opportunity to actually impact not only the opioid epidemic so people aren’t losing loved ones, but also to actively reduce the level of crime,” the attorney general said.

Landry’s office touted figures hinting that drug court graduates are less likely to reoffend than recently released inmates are. State agency brochures released in 2020 show that fewer than 7% of 2016 graduates reoffended within three years of graduation, while more than 14% of inmates released in 2016 reoffended within one year.

“What we’re trying to do is get out of the dichotomy of being tough on crime versus soft on crime,” Baton Rouge-based District Judge Donald R. Johnson said. “We are trying to be smart, smart on crime.”

Louisiana currently has 75 drug courts. Supporters hope the legislation will allow more courts to open, namely in the 13 judicial districts that don’t have one.

Violent offenders are not currently eligible for drug court, though future programs could let district attorneys choose whether to welcome drug users charged with violent crimes.

Marcelle, a former addict who has spent the past quarter-century in recovery, suggested eventually broadening the list of those who qualify for drug court.

“We’ve got to go forward with finding funds to reach every addict that we can,” she said. “Not all of them come through the criminal justice system.”

Lawmakers will consider the legislation when they start their annual session April 12.

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