Drug Courts Are Not the Answer

At two recent Capitol Hill briefings in Washington, D.C., the Drug Policy Alliance released a report on drug courts—programs that seek to reduce drug use through mandated treatment and close judicial oversight. Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use finds that, while such courts have helped many people, they are not an appropriate response to drug law violations nor are they the most effective or cost-effective way to provide treatment to people whose only “crime” is their addiction.

The Justice Policy Institute also issued its own report at the briefings: Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities. Both reports seek to provide a critical perspective that has been missing from the policy discussion on drug courts and to foster a more informed public debate, especially as more elected officials, all the way up to President Obama, reveal a lack of understanding of the real impacts of drug courts.

We have certainly stirred things up! Within 24 hours of the reports’ release, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) issued a statement [pdf] that underscores little tolerance for critique. It seems that at least some drug court proponents have come to believe that this particular policy approach should be protected from criticism. View our response to NADCP [pdf].

Rather than take a “pro” or “con” position, we’d prefer a discussion about how best to address drug use and how best to apply (and improve) the various court-based programs that go by the “drug court” moniker.

What’s absolutely critical is to understand that drug courts, though they often connect people with treatment services, are not a public health approach to drug use. They exist within a criminal justice system that demands punishment of individuals for a health issue.

Incarcerating people for a relapse—a predictable and normal part of drug treatment—flies in the face of public health principles. Denying opioid-dependent individuals access to what might be the most effective treatment for them, narcotic replacement therapies including methadone and buprenorphine, and then incarcerating them for failing to do well is unconscionable. Most drug courts are guilty of both.

For people convicted of a drug law violation, other policy responses should be available—whether probation, drug treatment or both—because research shows they are at least equally effective and less costly and because public health principles demand a health response, not a criminal justice one, to drug use absent harm or serious risk of harm (such as driving under the influence) to others. We also urge drug courts to focus their resources on cases involving offenses against person or property that are linked to a drug problem and to strive to provide better treatment options for participants.

The key message we hope policy makers will take away from our report is that drug courts are often not the best way to provide treatment, and they can in fact produce negative outcomes if not appropriately applied. U.S. drug policy must continue to move toward a public health approach to drug use. That’s how we can do the most good for the most people at the most affordable cost.

The fact that 1.4 million Americans are arrested every year for possession of drugs for personal use is a problem that will not be solved by drug courts.

The Drug Policy Alliance and Justice Policy Institute are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.

7 Comments

This is a shockingly uninformed blog post. First, drug courts have been rigorously evaluated, both by NIJ and others.

Second, public health and criminological approaches are not mutually exclusive. There are many very promising programs out there that seek to combine both, which provides both treatment AND accountability.

The radical ideology of this writer is clearly obfuscating evidence, science, and truth in order to advance a political agenda. One that, furthermore, helps neither the criminal justice system nor drug addicts.

I concur. I have researched AODTCs extensively and while there will always be examples of where courts can make improvements, the benefits on the whole are enormous.

This comment is clearly underscoring the author's point that "some drug court proponents have come to believe that this particular policy approach should be protected from criticism."
There's nothing "radical" about this blog. It merely points out that Drug Courts are not a panacea and that they are not a public health intervention. As for "evidence" jails that are bursting at the seams with people charged with drug crimes while the violent crime rate keeps going down is pretty strong evidence that what we are doing is not working. And while it may be hard to swallow, what we are doing includes over 1,600 drug courts.

I haven't really ever wrote on a blog before, but the anxiety and just overall thoughts i'm experiencing have made me feel like I just want to write something down. I got a misdemeanor marijuana charge a a little over two years ago in september of 2009. I decided (with my lawyer who encouraged my decesion) to sign up for the drug court program in S.C. Alabama. At the time I was meddling around with drugs and at the time I got arrested I thought 'hell this could be a good thing for me if i look at it the right way'. After being on probation for several months I began to get bored with my life of a constant 'grind'. I began to use spice since it couldn't be detected on the drug courts tests at the time. I normally would not smoke spice because It is a untested research chemical that i'm sure is bad for you, but because I was so tired of 'the grind' I went ahead and used it. I also began taking more adderall than was necessary because i really didn't have any other vices. I would mix the spice with adderall and psychedelic drugs because these things would not show up on the probations drug tests. anyway i'm kind of getting off track. The drug court i'm involved in requires that you come to court once a week every friday for 6 months, then once every three weeks on friday for 3 or 4 months, then once every 6 weeks for the last part you are on probation for about 2 months or so. I am also required to drug test 2-3 times randomly per week. I call in at 7 in the morning every morning and see if I have to make the 1 hour drive to the testing facility. I also have to pay 45 dollars once a week to see a counselor on addiction as well as pay 3000 dollars to drug court for court fees and testing. The gas is really expensive to get out to the testing facility so if you add that in over 2-3 times a week for 104 weeks its quite alot. So anyway i really just wanted to write something about the anxiety this program has given me. I'm unable to focus on my school anymore because i am constantly worried that I may get sent to jail for having a dilute piss test or for some other reason the may make up. I have been clean for about 2 months now and am so ready to get off probation so i can at least have a beer with my friends after a long day at work or school. hopefully i will be graduating from drug court in january. I must make a presentation infront of the courtroom (about 100) people tomorrow morning, a morning i have class, and have to miss my class because of drug court. I am skipping my first class to go to court and i really hope i make it to my 11am class since i have a test in economics. I'll be pushing it to get there, but its just kind of crazy. I can no longer take my adderall because they said it was narctoic even though a doctor prescribed it. I know i'm not perfect and that drugs really dont bring any good into a persons life if they use them frequently, but i feel this extreme anxiety all the time from worrying about drug court and i'm unable to see a psychiatrist and possibly be prescribed something that could help my racing mind calm down and be able to focus. anyways just really needed to vent and talk about it. Drug Court interferes with my life on an almost daily basis. Whether it be taking two hours out of my schedule to go test, taking 4 for the whole experience of court on a friday. or just calling into the probation hotline to check and see if my color was called 3 times daily because im' worried i didn't hear it the first time; i find myself constantly with drug court on the mind. I'm so worried about drug court that i can hardly focus on my future and what I need to do because i'm so worked up about making it to the day i'll get off since i'm scared somethings going to happen before then and it will be extended for another year. sigh....

I so feel for you son. My dear son is in a similar situation, though I truly believe he was done with his marijuana issue before drug court was imposed. We all now live in fear everyday of "Big Brother". Will today be the day they take my son for a "dilute" urine? He is dilute because he is petrified of urinating in front of some stranger that stares at his penis and tells him repeatedly if it' clear, your going to jail. OMG, what have we done to you? What authority have we given to our criminal justice system to punish the most in need? What are the statistics on the success rate from Drug Court? The only ones walking away feeling good from this nightmare are the police. They have a job. My son, he will loose his due to 2 hours here, 4 there!

I so feel for you son. My dear son is in a similar situation, though I truly believe he was done with his marijuana issue before drug court was imposed. We all now live in fear everyday of "Big Brother". Will today be the day they take my son for a "dilute" urine? He is dilute because he is petrified of urinating in front of some stranger that stares at his penis and tells him repeatedly if it' clear, your going to jail. OMG, what have we done to you? What authority have we given to our criminal justice system to punish the most in need? What are the statistics on the success rate from Drug Court? The only ones walking away feeling good from this nightmare are the police. They have a job. My son, he will loose his due to 2 hours here, 4 there!

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