Press Release  | 03/30/2011

Thurs: Briefing on Capitol Hill Responds to Finding That "Drug Courts Are Not the Answer"

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Martin Sheen and Others to Speak, Credit Drug Court with Saving Son Charlie Sheen's Life

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

Washington, D.C. – At a briefing on Capitol Hill tomorrow, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) will enlist actor Martin Sheen and others to respond to two new critical reports: the Drug Policy Alliance's Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use and the Justice Policy Institute's Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities.

The briefing also follows a recent exposé, by weekly public radio show This American Life, of a Georgia drug court that has tied up people in the criminal justice net for years – often for cases that elsewhere would have resulted in short probation terms. After forging two checks on her parents' checking account when she was 17, one for $40 and one for $60, for example, Lindsey Dills ended up in the Glynn County drug court for five and a half years, including a total of 14 months behind bars – and then, when she was finally kicked out of drug court, she faced another five-year sentence for the original offense, including six months in state prison. Another Glynn County drug court participant, Kim Spead, was incarcerated (at a cost of $17,000) for failure to pay $1,500 in fees – even though she had successfully graduated the program nearly two years earlier.

"The drug court phenomenon is, in large part, a case of good intentions 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. "We're concerned – and the data show – that many people who enter a drug court may actually wind up incarcerated for more time than if they had not entered drug court to begin with and that many people who end up in drug court do not have a drug problem but are being ordered to drug treatment anyway, filling up limited space that should go to people who actually need and want treatment."

"Drug courts have helped some people, but they have also failed many others and focused resources on people who could be better diverted to less resource-intensive options, like probation, and/or received drug treatment outside the criminal justice system," Dooley-Sammuli added.

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:
  1. drug courts often "cherry pick" people expected to do well;
  2. 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
  3. drug courts do not typically divert people from lengthy prison terms.

Because many 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. Indeed, 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 may encourage law enforcement and others to arrest people believing they will "get help," but because drug courts have limited capacity and strict eligibility requirements many people arrested end up conventionally sentenced.

Drug Courts Are More Punitive Toward Addiction – Not Less
 

  • Drug court participants who stand the best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem. While some people with serious drug problems respond to treatment in the drug court context; the majority do not. Indeed, participants with drug problems are 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, DPA: 646-335-5384 or Jason Fenster, JPI: 202-558-7974 x 306

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