Following decades of success for drug courts at the state level, federal judges around the nation are collaborating with prosecutors to create the special treatment programs for defendants who are addicted to drugs, The New York Times reports.
These defendants normally would face significant time in prison, the article notes. The judges hope to work around drug laws that are often seen as too harsh and inflexible. The Justice Department is permitting U.S. attorneys to reduce or even dismiss charges in some drug cases.
Defendants in drug court must accept responsibility for their crime, and agree to receive drug treatment and other social services. They must attend regular meetings with judges, who monitor their progress. If they successfully participate in the program, they receive a reduced sentence, or even no jail time. Failure to successfully complete the program results in them being sent to prison. Defendants facing more serious charges are not eligible for drug court.
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, 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.
The United States Sentencing Commission has established guidelines for sentencing since 1984, after studies found federal judges were giving different sentences for similar crimes. Judges feel the guidelines interfere with their judicial independence, according to the article. “When you impose a sentence that you believe is unjust, it is a very difficult thing to do,” Stefan R. Underhill, a federal judge in Connecticut, told the newspaper. “It feels wrong.”