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Drug Courts Need an Intervention, Reports Say

Drug courts in the U.S. are increasingly like the people they purportedly aim to help – indulging their pathological tendencies with enabling self-talk that ignores the harsh reality of their failings. So argues the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in its March 2011 report, Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use.

The Justice Policy institute (JPI) reached a similar conclusion in a report titled Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities, also released in March 2011.

“On the face of it, drug courts appear to be aligned with a growing sentiment that incarceration is not an effective response to drug use and that treatment is a better option because it gets at the root of the problem,” stated Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the DPA and Nastassia Walsh of JPI, in an April 6, 2011 editorial. “In other words, drug courts are promoted as more like a public health approach. Unfortunately, drug courts appear to be a case of good intentions being mistaken for a real solution.”

For 20 years, drug courts have sought to reduce illegal drug use by mandating substance abuse treatment within an overburdened criminal justice system that is generally more punitive than treatment-oriented. The DPA report acknowledges that drug courts have done “some good” by deterring many people from using drugs and helping them “overcome chaos.” But, according to the DPA, the success stories are merely the low-hanging fruit.

Because prosecutors continue to be the gatekeepers of drug courts nationwide, eligibility for such programs is limited to defendants arrested on petty drug charges, such as simple possession of marijuana. DPA researchers found that about one-third of drug court defendants do not have a “clinically significant” drug use disorder, and those who suffer from serious addictions are typically denied access to drug court programs.

The DPA report cites a 2008 survey that found nearly 90 percent of drug courts exclude people who have any history of violence, while half exclude those already on parole or probation or who have other cases pending. In short, drug courts are stacked with defendants who appear to pose the least risk of failing mandated treatment, and exclude people with serious drug abuse problems who are most in need of help.

“Prosecutors and judges may cherry-pick participants because of the limited capacity of the drug court combined with the political importance of achieving high success rates,” according to the DPA.

The JPI report found that “America’s growing reliance on drug courts is an ineffective allocation of scarce state resources. Drug courts can needlessly widen the net of criminal justice involvement, and cannot replace the need for improved treatment services in the community.”

After analyzing drug courts across the country, the DPA likewise concluded that such programs “may ultimately serve not as an alternative but as an adjunct to incarceration.” In Baltimore, for example, DPA researchers found that misdemeanor drug offenders who participated in drug courts spent almost as many days incarcerated as felony drug offenders who went through the traditional court system.

Additionally, the number of people imprisoned for drug law violations in Denver, Colorado “doubled soon after the city established drug courts.”

Based on such findings, the DPA report concluded that drug courts should be reserved for cases involving crimes against a person or property that are linked to a drug abuse disorder; that criminal penalties for drug use should eventually be phased out; and that public health systems should be bolstered to support treatment programs for people with substance abuse problems.

The DPA praised California for moving in those directions, thanks to the state’s “treatment-not-incarceration law,” Prop 36, which was passed by voters in 2000. Prop 36 changed state law to allow first- and second-time nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders the opportunity to receive substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration; the DPA supported the initiative.

Since then, according to the DPA, more than 300,000 people have been afforded drug treatment rather than conventional sentencing, and California taxpayers have been spared more than $2.5 billion in incarceration costs.

Still, the DPA laments, California’s drug courts remain “squarely within the criminal justice system,” where treatment is “secondary to punishment.” State officials slashed all funding for substance abuse treatment in 2010-2011. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.19].

Of course there are many supporters of drug court programs, including, not surprisingly, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). “Independent researchers from seven different academies have all concluded that drug courts reduce crime and save taxpayers a fortune,” said West Huddleston, CEO of the NADCP. “For over two decades, drug courts have been an instrumental force for institutional change within the criminal justice system and lifestyle change for over a million drug addicted offenders.”

Sources: Drug Policy Alliance, Baltimore Sun,

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