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Utah Evaluates Drug Program Pilot; Recommends Further Evaluation

by David M. Reutter

A report by Utah’s legislative Auditor General into the performance of the Drug Offender Reform Act (DORA) says that more time is needed to evaluate the program, and it makes several recommendations to assist in future evaluations.

DORA began as a three-year pilot program to identify and treat offenders who would benefit from substance abuse treatment rather than imprisonment. Utah’s 2005 Special Session Legislature appropriated $1.4 million to implement it in the Third Judicial District. In 2006, the Legislature expanded it to include all felony offenders, instead of limiting it only to drug offenders. The legislature appropriated $8 million in 2007 to make the program statewide.

Three state agencies – Corrections, Human Services and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice – collaborate to make DORA work. It has several goals, which are broken down into process and outcome goals. In the process category, there are three goals.

The first is smarter sentencing by providing the judge with specific information about an offender’s substance abuse problem and treatment needs prior to sentencing. Next, smarter treatment slots in the community and prisons, by conducting an assessment of the offender’s substance abuse and determining the appropriate level of treatment.

The outcomes from these processes have the goal of reducing substance abuse and crime/recidivism, reduce future needs for prison and jail beds, create more law-abiding and taxpayer citizens and create safer neighborhoods.

It is hoped that treatment will avoid future crimes that would occur and result in prison, saving up to $838 million over 10 years when costs of victimization are included. The report did not find evidence of crime reduction but noted it was way too early to make a true assessment. “In criminal justice research, it is important to remember that failures generally happen quickly but successes require time and effort to achieve,” said the three collaborating agencies’ response to the report.

The report found discrepancies between those three agencies’ data on DORA. This seriously inhibits a clear evaluation of the program that required correction. There are also differences in treatment of DORA offenders based upon location. In some instances this is due to treatment philosophy and other times it is based on the needs of the offenders.

In addition, Corrections used some DORA funds for non-DORA participants. This, as well as the failure to have clear guidelines for its agents’ contact with offenders, needs to be rectified to establish the program’s effectiveness.

It was recommended, further, that evaluation of the program continue. After a more sustained time of implementation, a guideline to treat all offenders and the availability to have correct information of spending, monitoring and treatment of offenders will render a clearer picture of whether the goals are being met. The collaborating agencies agreed to these recommendations and were working to put them in place.

The Utah Office of Legislative Auditor General’s January 2009 report no. 2009-03, A Performance Audit of the Drug Offender Reform Act is available 
on PLN’s website.

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