Value of Drug Courts Called into Question by Two Reports

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Criminal drug courts, a 22-year-old strategy to keep low-level drug offenders out of the justice system, are not as effective as they were previously thought to be, according to joint studies released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and The Drug Policy Alliance.

According to the studies, claims that people with substance abuse problems need the added push of judicial supervision to succeed are not supported by data. Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), authors said, show little difference in terms of success for people who are referred to treatment through criminal justice agencies and those from other sources.

The idea of the drug court was meant to decrease the number of people in prison for drug offenses, help people with addictions and improve public safety.

Today, the U.S. and its territories operate 2,559 drug treatment courts and another 1,219 problem solving courts. Over 55,000 people enter these drug courts annually. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimated that states spent $138 million on drug courts, and the federal government spent an additional $40 million.

The idea of the drug court was to decrease the number of people in prison for drug offenses. But drug courts have become “less a diversion from prison than a diversion from other alternatives to prison,” said Michael M. O’Hear, associate dean for research and professor of Law at Marquette University Law School, speaking on a call about the release of the reports.

Judge Morris B. Hoffman at the Denver District Court found that the number of drug filings increased three times in the two years following the implementation of drug courts.

“It is clear that the very presence of drug courts is causing police to make arrests in, and prosecutors to file, the kinds of ten-and twenty dollar hand-to-hand drug cases that they system simply would not have bothered with before,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, for many low-income addicts, the studies say, involvement in the criminal justice system is the only way to access treatment for substance abuse disorders, because it is not readily available in the community.

But individuals are typically kicked out of drug court for relapsing, the studies say, which in community organizations is deemed to be a normal part of the process and is treated with more intensive care. Once they are kicked out of drug court, their criminal sentences tend to be harsher.

Study authors said drug treatment in the community can reduce the potential for a person to relapse by 8.3 percent and produce $21 in benefits to victims and taxpayers in terms of reduced crime for every dollar spent. Drug treatment in prison produced only $7.74 in benefits, and drug courts less than $2 in benefits for every dollar spent.

Click here to read the JPI report.

Click here to read the report from the Drug Policy Alliance.