When former Dilaudid addict Michael Fisher was busted for theft in 2008, he was looking at up to eight years in prison and booked into jail with a bond of more than $25,000.
Upon the suggestion of another inmate, Fisher asked his public defender about the Shelby County Drug Court, a rehabilitation program for nonviolent offenders with drug addictions. Fisher was approved for the program, and drug court judge Tim Dwyer lowered his bond to $2,500.
"If my bond hadn't been reduced, I would have probably settled into the fact that jail is where I'd be spending the rest of my life," said Fisher, now a halfway-house manager who credits his year in the drug court program with turning his life around.
Since the Shelby County Drug Court began in 1997, Dwyer has worked to reduce bonds or even release defendants if when they agree to participate in the program. From June through September of last year, the court studied defendants with reduced or erased bonds to determine if the practice saved taxpayer money in the long run.
The results of that study, which were were made public in late January, showed that reducing or erasing bonds for drug court clients resulted in a significant savings over what would have been spent to incarcerate those people at the Penal Farm.
"We looked at the Penal Farm because if most of these clients were going to do straight jail time, that's where they would do it. Most of our clients are looking at felony drug cases, so they'll spend some significant time in jail," said Kyle Eaton, the database coordinator for the Shelby County Drug Court.
Not all drug court clients receive a bond reduction, but during the study timeframe, 31 clients were offered some sort of bond settlement. The drug court kept track of those clients, who had charges ranging from misdemeanor probation violations to felony drug cases.
The average cost per day to house an inmate at the Penal Farm is $47, but it costs an average of $13 a day to serve the needs of a drug court client.
The study looked at average sentence times for the 31 clients based on their charges and compared those with the cost per day in drug court and jail. Results showed that all 31 clients in the study group cost an average of $147,000 per year in drug court compared to $351,000 per year in jail.
"You always have jail overcrowding, and you'd rather have the jail available for violent offenders as opposed to the nonviolent offenders we put into our program. If they have a violent past, I don't reduce the bond," Dwyer said.
Once a client enters the yearlong drug court program, they're placed into either inpatient or outpatient drug treatment. If a client with a reduced bond fails to comply with treatment, they'll receive the maximum sentence for their charge.
"Surprisingly, not many people run. Most stay with us," Dwyer said.
Fisher admitted that he resisted treatment in the beginning, but after Dwyer placed him back in jail for 24 hours to reconsider his "attitude," Fisher decided to let the program do him some good.
"If you want to change your life, you'll go in there and listen," Fisher said. "You'll find out things about yourself that you didn't want to know or want to share."