October 22, 2009

Drug Courts Are the Most Sensible and Proven Alternative to Incarceration: So What’s the Problem?

by West Huddleston, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Drug Court Professionals

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently released a report criticizing 2,100 (there are actually 2,369) Drug Courts that offer effective treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicted offenders. Instead, the NACDL calls for the decriminalization of highly addictive drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine as the solution to the drug problem. According to Cynthia Orr, President of the NACDL, “Drug Courts have not stymied the rise in both drug abuse or exponentially increasing prison costs to taxpayers” because, according to the NACDL report, “Drug Courts focus on first-time or nonviolent offenders.” The evidence says differently.

It is now 20 years since the first Drug Court was initiated and there has been more research published on its effects than on virtually all other criminal justice programs combined. The scientific community has put Drug Courts under a microscope and concluded that Drug Courts work better than jail or prison, better than probation, and better than treatment alone. Most medications have less scientific evidence supporting their safety and benefit to the public. The research is unequivocal: Drug Courts significantly reduce drug abuse and crime and do so at less expense than any other justice strategy; and according to rigorous and replicated studies conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the more serious the offender’s drug addiction and length of criminal record, the better Drug Courts work. Drug Courts are not for the fist time or the non-addicted offender.  Those individuals will do just as well by diverting them to a disposition that leads to record expungement upon successful completion of court conditions.  Drug Courts focus on high-value offenders; those who have the highest need for treatment and other wrap-around services, and who have the highest risk of failing out of those services without support and structure. 

Research demonstrates that nationwide, 70% of the approximately 120,000 seriously addicted individuals who voluntarily enter Drug Court with the assistance of their defense attorney complete it a year or more later and 75% of them remain arrest-free.  A Drug Court participant is over twice as likely to stay clean and remain arrest-free as a newly released state inmate.  Research also concludes that Drug Courts reduce drug abuse and improve employment and family functioning.   These effects are not short-lived.  The longest study on Drug Court to date shows these outcomes last as much as14 years.  And more research is coming out every day. 

Still, no one would argue that Drug Courts have realized their full potential. Drug Courts have not been made available to everyone who needs them.  Half of U.S. counties do not have a Drug Court and the Drug Courts that do exist only have capacity to serve 10% of the serious drug-abusing and addicted offenders estimated to be in need.   That’s the real issue. 

New York has implemented a Drug Court in every county in the state.  In a three year study, the New York State Court System estimates that $254 million in incarceration costs were saved by diverting 18,000 drug offenders into Drug Court. During the entire fifteen-year time period Drug Courts have been in operation throughout the state, New York has witnessed historic reductions in crime.  And through the first half of this year, crime has fallen another 4.7 percent.  According to a recent Northwestern University report, alternatives to incarceration like Drug Courts could lead to the closing of four half-empty adult prisons in New York. And a number of states such as Alabama, Missouri, New Jersey and Texas, among others, are following suit. In fact, in 2008, 44 state budgets included a specific appropriation for Drug Courts, totaling $208,000,000 nationwide.  The Obama Administration and Congress is also investing in new Drug Courts and increasing the capacity of the 2,369 Drug Court already in existence in all fifty states and U.S. territories with a 250% increase in federal appropriations from the year before.  That’s a great start, but far from what we need to reach the 1.2 million seriously drug abusing or addicted offenders who need treatment. 

If no other sentencing option can compare with its success, shouldn’t we finish the job and give everyone who needs it access to these life-saving courts?  It’s simple really. Drug Courts remain constrained by limited resources and by the more popular thinking that an alcoholic or addict can be punished out of their dependence.

It is no secret that prison has accomplished little to stem the tide of crime or drug abuse.  Upon their release from prison, between 60% and 80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-related crime)  and 85% to 95% relapse quickly to drug abuse.   In some states, such as California, more than 75% will be returned to prison. And amazingly, these disappointing figures have done little to curb prison spending.  National expenditures on corrections well exceed $60 billion annually.   On average, states spend $65,000 per bed, per year to build new prisons and $23,876 per bed, per year to operate them

Unfortunately, it is also not sufficient to simply offer more treatment.  Left to their own devices without intensive supervision by a judge, approximately 25% of offenders never arrive for a single treatment session. And among those who do show for treatment, most drop out prematurely before receiving any benefits.  The power and authority of the Court is necessary to keep them engaged in treatment long enough to experience any lasting gains.

Drug Courts are judicially supervised court dockets that strike the proper balance between the need to help addicted offenders get free from the gasp of drugs and the need to protect community safety; between the need for effective treatment and the need to hold people accountable for their actions; between hope and redemption on the one hand and productive citizenship on the other. Drug Courts keep drug-addicted individuals engaged in treatment for long periods of time, while supervising them closely and holding them accountable for their obligations to society, their families and themselves. Participants are regularly and randomly tested for drug use, required to appear frequently in court for the judge to review their progress, and immediately receive rewards for doing well and sanctions for not living up to their obligations. All of this with one simple goal; get the addict clean and sober. 

And everybody benefits when an addict gets clean and sober in Drug Court. The most conservative estimates by researchers show that for every 1.00 invested in Drug Court, $3.36 are saved by the justice system and up to $12.00 (per $1 investment) are saved by the community on reduced emergency room visits and other medical care, foster care, and property loss. 

In Drug Court, we have an effective intervention that is not being fully implemented. Now is not the time to change course. It is our hope that a drug-addicted citizen should not need to be arrested in order to receive the help they require. But for the 1.2 million drug-addicted arrestees currently involved in the adult criminal justice system, the verdict is in: Drug Court is the solution and the passport to a new way of life. Now we must make the investment and finish the job.