Could Drug Courts Spell and End to the Misguided and Futile War on Drugs?

The War on Drugs has failed. In the name of stamping out the use of illicit substances, law enforcement agencies have poured resources into the futile war for over 40 years, and drug use is still a serious issue across the United States. Sentencing offenders to jail time doesn’t seem to discourage them from abusing substances again, and it isn’t serving as a sufficient deterrent to stop users from experimenting with substances. A new potential strategy comes in the form of drug courts, which focus on getting addicted individuals into treatment rather than the criminal justice system. The National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals is currently embarking on a road trip in favor of the approach, but does it really have the potential to work?

What Are Drug Courts?

Drug courts turn the justice system on its head in many ways. The country’s first drug court was established in 1989 in Florida, under the assumption that the current system does not work in cases of drug offenses. Instead of the defendant’s lawyers protecting his or her rights and the judge acting as a neutral arbitrator, an entire panel is established, with the judge as the central driving force. The judge decides which actions should be taken to help the individual overcome the disease, rather than establish whether laws have been broken. The judge determines what treatment approach would be best, whether methadone should be prescribed, and what should happen in the event of relapse. The defense lawyer is there only to help the user comply with the court’s ruling.

The courts were designed to address the huge number of petty drug cases making their way into the system through the ‘80s and’ 90s, as well as the harsh sentencing that was rapidly filling up the prisons. Drug courts promise a more humane and logical approach to dealing with drug abusers who’ve fallen into trouble with the law, focusing on treatment as opposed to punishment. However, they deal exclusively with drug-only offenders who don’t have a history of more serious or violent crime.

In the middle of 2012, there were more than 2,700 drug courts in the U.S., according to the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals, and these covered every state and territory. The courts keep 136,000 addicted individuals out of jail and get them into treatment every year.

Criticisms of the Approach

There are many positive elements to the drug court model, and this is supported by the programs’ effect of reducing recidivism, which is when ex-offenders commit another crime and return to jail. This effect is more pronounced in those who complete the program of treatment, but many still argue that the programs are actually ineffective.

One of the most common criticisms of drug courts is that they often result in more jail time for the people sentenced. The Drug Policy Alliance argues that those who fail in the treatment programs are treated more harshly afterward as a result of their perceived “failure,” and even that drug courts are only useful for those “without a drug problem.” The claim is that since the courts often punish relapse, compulsive users are actually worse off for attending the drug court than they would have been in the ordinary justice system.

Although studies have generally shown that drug courts reduce recidivism, many of the studies are fraught with methodological flaws that make the results slightly less reliable. The differences between the sentencing and programs used by individual courts means that some are more successful than others, and this is often related to the length of treatment suggested (with longer treatment being more successful).

Could They Help?

Drug courts aren’t perfect, but they represent an important step toward a more health-based approach in dealing with drug abusers. The most damaging criticism of the courts is the potential for longer prison sentences for many users, because this is the issue the courts were designed to resolve, but it’s undoubtedly better to give treatment a chance than to jump right to criminal punishment. The widespread use of the courts and the number of addicted individuals they help every year is evidence that there are some benefits.

They are not the end to the War on Drugs; they’re more like a casual withdrawing of troops. Criminal punishment is disappearing from the front line, but it’s still the ultimate recourse when all else fails. It’s a move in the right direction, but the route needs shifting even further toward treatment and away from criminal punishment to address the country’s continuing drug problem.



Posted on June 20th, 2013
Posted in Substance Abuse

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