Press Release  | 03/22/2011

New Report Finds "Drug Courts Are Not the Answer"

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Latest Analysis: Drug Courts Have Not Demonstrated Cost Savings, Reduced Incarceration or Improved Public Safety

Washington, D.C. – At two briefings on Capitol Hill today, the Drug Policy Alliance released a groundbreaking new report, Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use, which finds that drug courts have not demonstrated cost savings, reduced incarceration, or improved public safety; leave many people worse off for trying; and have actually made the criminal justice system more punitive toward addiction – not less.

"The drug court phenomenon is, in large part, a case of good intensions being mistaken for a good idea," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance, who contributed to the report. "Drug courts have helped many people, but they have also failed many others, focused resources on people who could be better treated outside the criminal justice system and in some cases even led to increased incarceration. As long as they focus on people whose only crime is their health condition, drug courts will be part of the problem – not the solution – created by drug war policies."

"Even if drug courts were able to take in all 1.4 million people arrested for just drug possession each year, over 500,000 to 1 million people would be kicked out and sentenced conventionally," Dooley-Sammuli added.

"Far from being a cure for the systemic problems of mass drug arrests and incarceration, drug courts are not even a stopgap," said Daniel Abrahamson, Drug Policy Alliance's Director of Legal Affairs, who also contributed to the report. "Drug courts have actually helped to increase, not decrease, the criminal justice entanglement of people who struggle with drugs and have failed to provide quality treatment. Only sentencing reform and expanded investment in health approaches to drug use will stem the flow of drug arrests and incarceration. The feel-good nature of drug courts hasn't translated into results. U.S. drug policy must be based not on good intentions, but on robust, reliable research."

The Justice Policy Institute today also released its own independent report on drug courts, Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities, which finds that providing people with alternatives like community-based treatment are more cost-effective and provide greater public safety benefits than treatment that comes with the collateral consequences associated with involvement in the criminal justice system. For more information on this JPI report, contact Jason Fenster at 202.558.7974 x 306 or jfenster [at] justicepolicy [dot] org.

An audio recording of a March 21 press teleconference on both reports is available online here.

Key Findings of DPA's Drug Courts Are Not the Answer:

Drug Courts Have Not Demonstrated Cost Savings, Reduced Incarceration, or Improved Public Safety
 

  • Unscientific and poorly designed research has failed to take into account that: drug courts often "cherry pick" people expected to do well; many people end up in a drug court because they are offered the option of jail or treatment for a petty drug law violation, including marijuana; and, as a result, drug courts do not typically divert people from lengthy prison terms. Given drug courts' focus on low-level offenses, even positive results for individual participants translate into little public safety benefit to the community. Treatment in the community, whether voluntary or probation-supervised, often produces better results.

Drug Courts Leave Many People Worse Off for Trying
 

  • The widespread use of incarceration – for failing a drug test, missing an appointment or being a "knucklehead" – means that some participants end up serving more time behind bars than if they had not entered drug court. And some participants deemed "failures" may actually face longer sentences 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 those not in drug court may be negatively affected by them, since drug courts have been associated with increased arrests and incarceration in some cases – because law enforcement and others believe people will "get help" if they are arrested but drug courts' limited capacity and strict eligibility requirements mean that many of those additionally arrested end up conventionally sentenced.

Drug Courts Are More Punitive Toward Addiction – Not Less
 

  • Some people with serious drug problems respond to treatment in the drug court context; not the majority. The participants who stand the best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem, while those struggling with compulsive drug use are more likely to end up incarcerated. Participants with drug problems are also disadvantaged by inadequate treatment options. Drug courts typically allow insufficiently trained program staff to make treatment decisions and offer limited availability to quality treatment, including narcotic replacement therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine.

Key Recommendations of DPA's Drug Courts Are Not the Answer:
 

  • Reserve drug courts for cases involving offenses against person or property, while providing other options such as probation, drug treatment or both for people arrested for low-level drug law violations;
  • Work toward removing criminal penalties for drug use to reduce mass drug arrests and incarceration.
  • Bolster public health systems, including harm reduction and drug treatment programs, to more effectively and cost-effectively help people with drug problems outside of the criminal justice system.

Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Margaret Dooley-Sammuli at 213-291-4190

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