Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It's Time to Expand Drug Court Programs

The New York Times reports that drug courts have been a successful experiment. They reduce prison populations and recidivism by substituting treatment and supervision for incarceration in prosecutions of drug offenders.

Experts say drug courts have been the country’s fastest-spreading innovation in criminal justice, giving arrested addicts a chance to avoid prison by agreeing to stringent oversight and addiction treatment. Recent studies show drug courts are one of the few initiatives that reduce recidivism — on average by 8 percent to 10 percent nationally and as high as 26 percent in New York State — and save taxpayer money.
Although there are about 2,100 drug court programs providing treatment at any given time to about 70,000 offenders, that number represents a small percentage of the addicts who are charged with drug crimes. Drug courts have high up-front costs, but they save money in the long term by keeping offenders out of prison and by reducing crime. We need more of them. [more ...]

This criticism of drug courts isn't particularly worrisome:

Some lawyers also say the courts can infringe on the rights of defendants given that offenders usually must acknowledge guilt to enter the court, or in some places have already agreed to a plea bargain and sentence. Thus an addict might opt for drug court to avoid prison or with sincere intentions of going straight, but if treatment fails and he is expelled from the program, he must serve a sentence without having seriously fought the charges. His total time in court custody, between drug court and then prison, may be longer than it would have been otherwise.
True, but defendants who go on probation and get revoked often serve more time than they would have served if they opted for a straight sentence in the first place. That alternatives to incarceration don't always work out is no reason not to provide alternatives.

Nobody compels drug defendants to enter drug court. If they have a strong defense, they should opt for a trial. If they know they can't succeed in a treatment program, they should bargain for the best sentence they can get. Drug court isn't for everyone. Defense lawyers are capable of assessing the offender and the evidence and advising a client whether drug court is right for him or her. After a thorough discussion of the risks and rewards, the defendant can make an informed choice whether to try a drug court program.

Another criticism:

Critics also worry that the courts can monopolize scarce drug-treatment slots at the expense of other addicts seeking help.
That's not an indictment of drug courts, but of the lack of adequate funding for treatment programs.

Mark Kleinman suggests a modified alternative:

Dr. Kleiman advocates a slimmed-down system that does not initially require costly treatment, as drug courts do, but simply demands that offenders stop using drugs, with the penalty of short stays in jail when they fail urine tests. Such an approach has shown promise with methamphetamine users in Hawaii, he said, and because it is far cheaper, it can be applied to far more offenders.
True addicts aren't likely to stop using drugs without treatment, and even then lapses are nearly inevitable (a fact that most drug courts recognize). On the other hand, not every person arrested for a drug crime is an addict who needs treatment to stop using drugs. For those, Kleiman's suggestion (which seems similar to probation with a condition of mandatory urine testing) makes sense.

There isn't a "one size fits all" solution to crime, but incarceration should always be a last resort, reserved for violent or incorrigible offenders. Many alternatives don't work well because they lack the resources to be effective. Studies like those cited in the Times article teach us that funding an expansion of drug court programs is change we can all believe in.

From the Blog "Talk Left"
By TChris, Section Crime Policy
Posted on Wed Oct 15, 2

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