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Experts Divided on Drug Court Effectiveness

The tough-on-crime policies that dominated the 1980s were soon followed by a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice. Proponents pointed out that current practices, in the end, were costlier and simply led to mass incarceration. Alternative sentencing measures were adopted and drug courts were created as a means of combining justice and rehabilitation.

The courts offered a choice to defendants accused of crimes in which substance abuse was a factor. The defendant could either continue criminal proceedings normally or plead guilty in drug court, where they would be sentenced to a minimal number of years enrolled in a recovery program. Dependent upon the court and the program the defendant was sentenced to, freedoms could be restricted to varying degrees. Nonetheless, the defendant would be subjected to mandatory drug testing and possible court progress hearings.

The concept was to surround the defendant with professionals and monitors, overseen by a judge, in order to help the defendant cope with their substance abuse problem. Once the defendant completed the program, they “graduated” and were in theory able to continue their lives in a socially acceptable manner.

Proponents of this system say it takes into consideration the needs of the defendant and gets them the help they need, while costing taxpayers a lot less than incarceration, and that society benefits from a reduction in crime and recidivism. Jurisdictions that have drug courts have shown between an 8% and a 26% decrease in their crime rates.

A 2018 assessment of drug court graduates in Massachusetts showed a recidivism rate of under 30% after the first year. The national average for similar high-risk males is 70%. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins said, “It costs $55,000 a year to send someone to [jail] — I’d rather use half of that and send them to a program where they’re not harming themselves or the community and they’re getting the treatment they need to be better.”

Critics of alternative sentencing measures, on the other hand, say the program is not effective and only supplies a defendant with an excuse not to accept responsibility for their actions. Studies conducted of drug court graduates do not have control groups to compare results against. They only include successful graduates and do not track post-graduate relapses.

An analysis of 92 drug court evaluations conducted in 2012 found that only 25% of them were rigorous evaluations. Recidivism reduction studies, critics contend, only use cherry-picked data and only track results over a short time. One study conducted in Massachusetts in 2018 showed that recidivism rates of drug court graduates after a two-year period jumped to 50%.

Many who take advantage of drug courts do not even have an addiction problem or are only addicted to low-level drugs, such as marijuana. Serious addicts in need of rehab are excluded. Black and other communities of color are disproportionately underrepresented. Massachusetts state Senator William Brownsberger said, “I think of drug court like chemotherapy — it’s an extremely blunt instrument that is bad for people unless they really, really need it.” 


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