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Dallas Weighs Worth Of Its Drug Courts

As federal money runs out, local officials must find new sources of cash to keep courts operating

Violent drug felons have come to expect swift and certain justice in the drug courts of Dallas County, Texas.

Judges and prosecutors specially trained to handle drug cases bring them to trial within three months - when witnesses' memories are fresh. Sentences average around 30 years, often with no option of parole.

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Yet Dallas's three drug courts are on borrowed time. The $900,000 in federal grants that got the courts up and running is due to expire at the end of September. And this has county law-enforcement officials scrambling to find local cash to keep them going. The predicament highlights the mixed feelings many county officials have about accepting federal money - a problem that may grow in importance as the federal government shifts more responsibility for social programs - from welfare to Medicare - onto the backs of state and local officials.

"Personally, I don't think federal grants are good for local governments," says Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson, adding that the drug courts are just one of a dozen worthy programs vying for the county's $3 million in discretionary spending. "They have tended to get us to start programs we wouldn't have started with our own money."

"But you know, if we didn't take these grants then someone else would have," Mr. Jackson adds. "When someone comes to us with a grant proposal, we say, 'Great, go after it.' That's not the way it ought to be, but that's what happens."

Like hundreds of other counties across the nation, Dallas County knew that the federal funding they applied for under the Byrne program would last for only four years. Named for a New York police officer who was killed in a 1987 drug bust, the $585 million Byrne initiative offers money to help local governments create programs to fight violent drug-related crimes.

But despite the success of Dallas's drug courts, the county did little to prepare for the day when its windfall would become a burden.

"I don't think anyone dreamed [the funding] would stop, particularly since it was going so well," says District Judge John Nelms, who oversees the drug courts in Dallas County. "Now, when the funding runs out, the cases we sent down there [to the drug courts] will flood back into the system. It's going to create a burden for us."

Even so, federal grants under the Byrne program usually prove popular enough that many counties and states keep them running after the federal grant expires.

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Overall, 73 percent of the states end up picking up the cost of Byrne drug-enforcement initiatives, says Jim Swain, director of the state and local assistance division of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in Washington. If a program dies when the grant money dries up, he adds, "that tells a lot about how important it is to the area. When you put in a useful program, it's maintained."

Some states plan ahead for the day when federal grants will end. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state agency responsible for watching Byrne grants requires counties to steadily wean themselves from federal funding. By the fourth year, counties bear the full cost and make decisions every year thereafter whether to keep the program.

In Berks County, Pa., which accepted a $60,000 Byrne grant three years ago, this arrangement has forced law-enforcement officials to work harder in justifying the acceptance of every new federal grant.

"At one time, we used to be able to get any grant we could take," says Roger Luckenbill, the chief of adult probation for Berks County. "Now we have to argue for everything every year."

Back in Dallas, Jackson says the county commission will make a decision in another few weeks on whether to assume the cost of one or more of the drug courts. But he expresses some exasperation over being forced into last-minute, big-ticket decisions.

"We should have a better idea at the front end of what to expect these courts to do in order to know if they have been successful or not," he adds. Without better numbers, including the overall cost, the conviction rate, and average length of sentences, "I'm not prepared to tell you whether drug courts are a better use of money" than other programs, such as a child protection agency.

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