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Federal Government Embraces Drug Courts, But Critics Remain


The Obama Administration has embraced the concept of drug courts, which provide nonviolent drug offenders with treatment instead of incarceration. But critics of the system say the courts could end up costing more money and lead to longer sentences for some offenders, according to U.S. News & World Report.

There are more than 2,700 drug courts in the United States, the article notes. Legal experts say drug courts are a less costly and more effective option than prison for many low-level repeat offenders. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), every dollar spent on drug courts yields more than two dollars in savings in the criminal justice system alone. Federal judges have instituted drug court programs in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. So far, about 400 defendants have been involved in federal drug court programs.

At a conference hosted by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals on Monday, ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske spoke about the benefit of drug courts, saying, “More and more people are realizing that they can turn their lives around.”

The Drug Policy Alliance released a report in 2011 called “Drug Courts Are Not the Answer.” The group argues that “drug courts may not reduce incarceration, improve public safety, or save money when compared to the wholly punitive model they seek to replace.” Founding Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann says that in the drug court system, participants can only avoid incarceration if they can quit without relapsing. “Typically it’s the case that people relapse if addicted … and then somebody who only had a minor drug problem may start getting re-incarcerated over and over again,” he said.

Nadelmann says there is a role for drug courts. “But some are playing it, and some are not,” he noted.

3 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Sandy B
    Sandy B / July 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    My son, who is an addict and at 18 yrs old was sentenced to 2 years in prison for a burglary, but was allowed to attend drug court instead. A year into the program he was caught using again and was sent away for 5 months to a therapeutic correctional institution. He got out, relapsed again, and is now incarcerated for another year in the same therapeutic correctional instituiton. Over the past 3 years he has been incarcerated for 2 of those years. The problem with drug courts, at least in my area, is that there is not enough staff and not enough oversight for the addict. When a probation officer noticed my son seemed like he was struggling and asked me what he should do, I asked him to drug test him as much as he could. After 8 weeks, my son was never once drug tested. He lost 30 pounds and started using meth and heroin before the probation officers even checked on him. My feeling is that if the addict wants help, maybe drug courts work. We live in a small town and all the substance abusers know each other and are involved in the judicial system, so they seem to feed off one another. I am not sure if my son will ever get out of the system now. Ultimately he needs real treatment for addiction not just put in jail or left to his own devices once he gets out.

  2. Avatar of Frank Monday
    Frank Monday / July 17, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    The research is stacked up that reports Drug Courts are effective, and do in fact return a savings to the system. We hear that loud, clear, and often from NADCP. What we don’t hear is that there are other modes of treatment for substance abusing offenders that are less costly and return even more dollars. Drug Courts are appropriate for certain addicted, high risk offenders. Others can be more effectively treated and supervised in less restrictive, less expensive programs. Drugs Courts work, but they are not the only strategy for offenders with substance use disorders. Use the right tool for the job. Drug Court is a sledge hammer. Most offenders can be treated with just a hammer.

  3. Richard Solomon, PhD / July 19, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Almost all addicts only respond to treatment when leverage is applied via family, employer, or the justice/probation system. If you are not going to use a drug court, what other interventions would you suggest.
    What is the ‘hammer’ you refer to?

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