EVERYONE CLAPPED two months ago, as Kayla Ballew strolled up to a courthouse lectern in downtown Portland to accept a rarefied piece of paper.

The certificate announced the 22-year-old had completed START Court, a treatment program run out of Multnomah County Circuit Court aimed at addicts with a penchant for theft.

Ballew, a heroin addict who was caught pawning a stolen ring, had done what more than 80 percent of others in her shoes had not. She'd navigated a strict regimen of counseling, drug screens, and constant court dates while avoiding further trouble. She was a year clean, she told county staff on hand. A stint at a Subway had lasted longer than any other job she'd ever had.

Ballew earned her applause. But for skeptical prosecutors around the state, an uncomfortable question hangs over those good feelings: Is START Court, and scads of costly programs like it, actually worth the money?

As Oregon prepares to throw tens of millions of dollars at slowing prison growth in the next two years, that question is taking center stage for public safety officials, who have turned it into another front in an ongoing debate over prison reform.

District attorneys have long argued programs like START too often skate by on a combination of good intentions and protective bureaucracy. For years, some of Oregon's most-vocal DAs have urged strict and rigorous experiments to prove, once and for all, whether such efforts successfully cut down on crime.

"They're basic principles of science that are applied everywhere," says Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, "and for some reason in corrections and criminal justice, folks have been willing to accept very poor science."

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