Local officials know that a new drug court would not completely prevent criminals from being repeat offenders. But as similar programs in other counties can attest, they can be productive.
"There is no magic bullet here," said Jay Byers, Pittsburg Director of Innovations. "When we talk about recidivism, instead of 50 percent, maybe now it's 30 percent. It's not a panacea, but it's a substantial decrease."
Byers and other local members of law enforcement and the judicial branch are working to set up a separated, special court structure designed to help address the root causes of nonviolent crimes.
"Somebody with a history of drug convictions but no violence, sending them to prison isn't going to solve their problem. When they get out of prison, they're basically assured of going back," Byers said. "If the reason they're in jail is because of drugs, if you can solve that problem of drug addiction, maybe they don't have to send them to prison."
While there are many details to be worked out, the essence of the idea is rather simple. Nonviolent offenders (often drug-related) can be placed for consideration for such a diversion court by either the arresting officer or a senior officer. After that, an assessment is done on the individual to determine if they would be a good candidate for this court.
If approved, a judge would work closely with a lawyer to prescribe a program of diversion for the individual, typically a drug treatment program and "a heavily supervised probation" with a number of restrictions.
"If they pass their program and fulfill all the terms of the sentence -- and it is a sentence -- in many cases, they will drop the crimes. That's the goal, that you can do that," Byers said.
If a person does not complete the program -- and there are a few "strikes" given -- then the person would re-enter the criminal court system. Further, violent criminals would not be allowed into the diversion court system.
"The idea is not to punish, but to actually help them," Byers said.
Byers does have some personal experience with setting up a drug court. He helped write some of the first grant proposals for Jackson County, Mo., but he noted that the true push came from now-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Jackson County was the second county in the nation to operate a drug court, after Miami-Dade in Florida. Jackson County, home of Kansas City, Mo., claims that more than 1,200 have graduated from drug court, with more than 96 percent remaining conviction free within five years.
The issue really got rolling locally after a state commission studied the issue and basically gave the green light to create such programs.
Right now, the city and county are still working to determine what exactly the administration side of this special court would look like. Byers said this is a unique structure that judges will have to manage and work with their judicial counterparts to make a success.
Byers said the larger group working on the issue was also breaking into smaller groups to visit areas that already have such programs in place, like in Hutchinson.
Further, there's the issue of funding for the program.
"It'll probably be grants. We can probably piecemeal together for the administration, like court reporters, the assessments and onboarding people to bring them to court and enhance the staff. We could probably come up with those," Byers said.
However, the true costs would be in how to fund the actual treatment programs, like drug programs. That's a further issue because there is not an inpatient drug program in the county, Byers said. However, those worried about the cost really haven't done the math, he said.
"The cost is really a wash, or even a cost savings. Incarceration is a big expense. We're not asking for more money, we're just diverting the money. People think it's really expensive and coddling, but it's not, because it's all in trying to stop people from being repeat offenders," he said.
Don't expect these drug courts to be up and working within the next month or two. Rather, this is at least a program that would take six months to a year to get started.
"The goal is to get them back into being good members of society. A lot of people aren't ready to give up on these people," Byers said.