Pro & Con: Drug courts an effective alternative for offenders?

YES: Done right, drug courts lower recidivism and cut costs.

By Wendy P. Guastaferro

Georgia’s drug courts are positioned to become a model of effective, evidence-based interventions for the Southeast and the nation. Drug courts keep people clean and in treatment longer than other treatment programs. Staying in treatment leads to better outcomes. Drug courts also reduce recidivism and save money.

A state audit report released last year found that Georgia’s drug court participants have significantly lower recidivism rates than drug offenders who serve prison time and cost millions of dollars less than prison. The report recommended the expanded use of drug courts.

Gov. Nathan Deal has called for an increased use of effective alternatives to costly prisons, like drug courts.

While support for drug courts is quickly gaining momentum, they face an incredible threat: their own success.

Drug courts require tireless work by trained, competent, collaborative criminal justice and treatment teams, and rely on donated time from the judiciary, prosecutors and public defenders. Drug courts receive minimal funding ($10 million annually, half of which is local funding), yet achieve the most critical outcomes for Georgia: reducing crime and improving lives.

If asked to continue these monumental tasks while also absorbing offenders diverted from prison without the infrastructure and financial support needed, drug courts face becoming another failed criminal justice experiment. How can we prevent this?

First, drug courts should target high-risk, nonviolent adult offenders to maximize positive outcomes for the individual and public safety. When we say high-risk, we are talking about the probability of committing additional crimes, not the probability that someone will be violent. Targeting those who are most likely to re-offend who also have serious substance abuse problems means providing both intensive legal supervision and treatment.

Programs that target individuals with a high risk for reoffending are up to five times more effective in reducing recidivism compared to those that target low-risk individuals.

Second, drug courts should implement practices that work (such as relapse prevention treatment and changing the way offenders think and see the world, known as cognitive behavioral therapy). They should avoid relying on practices shown to have neutral or negative effects for drug-involved offenders (such as self-esteem programs).

Addiction is one of the most powerful forces in existence. Relapse is part of recovery. If people could stop using drugs because a judge told them to, we would not need drug courts. In order to overcome such a consuming force, drug courts must keep close tabs on their participants and provide effective treatment services.

Drug courts should demand accountability from offenders in their programs. Drug testing should occur randomly two to three times a week. Sanctions for noncompliance and incentives for doing well are essential to changing behavior. Drug courts should use an established treatment curriculum.

Third, developing standards for Georgia’s drug court programs will provide much-needed guidance to localities who want start a program, will improve practices and accountability in existing programs, ensure responsible use of taxpayer dollars and allow for sound drug court program evaluation for Georgia.

Georgia should embrace this unique moment to set the bar for cutting costs, reducing crime and saving lives. But drug courts need continued assistance, an infusion of funding and the political commitment to support a sustainable model.

Wendy P. Guastaferro is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University and the program evaluator for the DeKalb County Drug Court.

NO: Claims about drug courts aren’t supported by research.

By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli and Nastassia Walsh

Drug addiction is a health problem. So why are U.S. drug policies still seeking solutions in the criminal justice system?

The use of drug courts — programs that seek to reduce drug use through mandated drug treatment and close judicial oversight — has grown dramatically over the last 20 years thanks to moving success stories and enthusiastic proponents within the criminal justice system. These success stories are real and deserve to be celebrated, but they provide only a partial picture.

Based on our own analyses of the existing research, we have independently come to the same conclusion that several academics and even the federal government’s General Accountability Office (GAO) have: Claims that drug courts have significantly reduced costs, incarceration or drug use are unsupported by the evidence.

More troubling is that drug courts may actually increase the criminal justice involvement of people with drug problems. The widespread use of incarceration as a sanction in drug courts — for failing a drug test, missing an appointment or having a hard time following the strict rules of the court — means that some participants end up serving more time behind bars than if they had not entered drug court. And some participants may actually face longer sentences when they are ejected from drug court than those who did not enter drug court in the first place (often because they lost the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge).

Even people who are not in drug court may be negatively affected by them, since drug courts have been associated with increased arrests and incarceration in some cases. This is often because law enforcement and others believe people will “get help” if they are arrested. But drug courts have limited capacity and strict eligibility requirements, which means that many of those arrested end up conventionally sentenced.

Treatment through the criminal justice system, including drug courts, is not found to be more effective than treatment in the community — though it is significantly more expensive. A federal study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for example, showed that people referred to treatment from the criminal justice system do not fare better than those referred through other means (such as a loved one or an employer). And, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, drug courts do not reduce recidivism by even a half a percentage point more than treatment in the community without a judge’s oversight.

More than 1.4 million people are arrested every year simply for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use — about half for marijuana. Only some of them have a drug problem and need treatment. Even if drug courts were expanded to scale to cover all of the people arrested for a drug law violation, between 500,000 and 1 million people would still be ejected from a drug court and sentenced conventionally every year.

Instead, we need drug courts to focus on more serious law violations that are linked to a drug problem and to expand access to treatment and other health interventions in the community so that they are available when people seek them. About 7.8 million Americans want drug treatment, according to the 2009 U.S. National Survey of Drug Use and Health; this is more than the number of people facing lung, breast and prostate cancer combined. Many people who want treatment can’t access it outside the criminal justice system. This must change.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is deputy state director, Southern California, for the Drug Policy Alliance, and authored “Drug Courts Are Not the Answer.”

Nastassia Walsh is research associate at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of “Addicted to Courts.”