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Faster drug testing, more drug courts proposed for Louisiana

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Faster drug testing, more drug courts proposed for Louisiana

Feb 28, 2024 | 2:55 pm ET
By Allison Allsop
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Faster drug testing, more drug courts proposed for Louisiana
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Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, has authored a bill to increase drug testing and provide a new source to fund the establishment of drug courts. (Allison Allsop/ Louisiana Illuminator)

Two Louisiana Senate committees have unanimously approved a bill to require faster drug testing for certain crimes. It could also establish more drug courts and a new way to pay for them.

House Bill 3, authored by Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, amends bail requirements for certain drug suspects and persons accused of a violent crime.  This includes illegal possession or distribution of any scheduled drugs.

Butler’s proposal, which now only needs full Senate approval, would require drug tests within 24 hours of someone being booked into jail for the aforementioned crimes. It also calls for clinical evaluations for anyone who tests positive for one or more controlled substances. The evaluation will be used to determine if the person has an addiction and is eligible to participate in a drug rehabilitation program through the court. 

Current law already requires these offenders to be drug tested, but it does not specify when testing must occur. 

Butler said her proposal will move offenders from state-funded correctional facilities to drug courts in a faster manner. 

Parishes without a drug court will not be able to offer drug rehabilitation over prison sentencing for offenders. However, they will still be responsible for conducting drug testing within 24 hours of booking. 

Sen. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, who helped establish one of the state’s first drug courts, commended Butler for her bill.

“Drug courts have dispelled the myth [that] people can only benefit from treatment if they want it,” Bouie said.

Drug courts remove defendants from the traditional court setting and offer drug rehabilitation instead of prison. Offenders must plead guilty to their charges and waive their right to trial to be accepted into the program. Successful completion of the program, which requires regular drug tests and treatment sessions, can lead to the dismissal of charges if the district attorney approves.

Butler’s bill would equate the dismissal of charges to an acquittal except that it would still count as a prior conviction if they return to court. 

Money to pay for additional testing, clinical assessments and more personnel could come out of the state’s opioid settlement fund. Louisiana is among the 46 states receiving large payouts from pharmaceutical companies for their negligence in the dispersal of addictive painkillers. 

Louisiana will receive roughly $325 million over the next 10 to 18  years. Parish governments will receive 80% of the money, and the other 20% will go to sheriffs’ departments. 

Parishes can choose to pay for the requirements in Butler’s bill themselves or request money from the opioid settlement fund. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court has traditionally established specialty courts, including those for drug offenders. Currently, 50 of the state’s 75 specialty courts are drug courts. Funding for drug courts is allocated from the state general fund and distributed through the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

To launch a state-funded drug court program, a jurisdiction must form a team that includes judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court coordinators, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement. 

Butler said that smaller parishes often do not have the funding or personnel to fulfill the initial requirements of the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

Butler’s bill would allow parishes to fund their own specialty courts without relying on the Louisiana Supreme Court. This funding would also come from the Opioid Abatement Fund. 

The total cost of Butler’s proposal is currently unclear because it’s not known how many more people could end up in drug courts. According to the fiscal impact note attached to the bill, each current drug court might need two additional full-time employees and one part-time to screen and assess defendants. This would cost around $9.9 million a year. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court budgets $6,000 for each drug court participant. A large surge in participation in the Supreme Court approved drug courts could drive up the state’s costs. 

Gov. Jeff Landry has already added an additional $5.7 million to his budget proposal for the operation of the Supreme Court approved drug courts.

Once the money in the opioid settlement fund runs out, the 24-hour testing requirements and screening requirements will be subject to funding the Legislature approves.