Are Drug Courts the answer?

This week we air a series about how society is experimenting with alternatives to long-term incarceration for drug-related crimes. In the first story, one young man gets sent to drug court, instead of having to serve a 1-4 year prison sentence. You can listen to it here.

In putting the story together, I spoke to a few policy experts who have spent years researching and evaluating drug courts. In 1989, in Miami-Dade County, Florida officials (including Janet Reno) started the country’s first drug court. It’s a complicated issue, and there are a lot of different perspectives on it. So I really encourage you to look at the different sides. I’ve linked you to some of the articles and reports written about the issue. Here were some thoughts from the experts I spoke to that I had to leave on the cutting room floor:

John Roman works for the Urban Institute, and believes we should expand drug courts–that they’re still the most effective way we’ve found to deal with people who commit nonviolent crimes related to drug abuse. He talked about the thinking behind creating drug courts:

“If we can solve some of the underlying reasons why people go on to offend, then we can keep them out of our court system and we can stop treading water and maybe start to get a handle on these things. So it really was a way to divert people out of the usual process, take people whose drug use was causing illegal activity, all those pressures on the system were reduced, and to help stem this epidemic. […] To think more about this person is standing before me because they have broken the law, and society wants us to respond o them, and that’s perfectly reasonable. But thinking about what it is that led this person to do this thing.”

Jag Davies works for the Drug Policy Alliance and helped write the report “Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Towards A Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use.” He said that it’s not totally accurate to call drug courts an effort to “turn away from incarceration” as long as the prison system, and the Department of Corrections, still stand as the gatekeeper to a participant’s success. He emphasized,

“Relapse is a normal part of the recovery process from addiction, and drug courts don’t really have that kind of flexibility where any kind of a failure. [...] There’s never really been an example anywhere in history of effectively using criminal justice system to address public health problem, there’s no other public health problem that we address in that way.”

All the experts I spoke to mentioned that drug courts tend to “cherry-pick” (they all used that phrase) their participants, to achieve the highest success rates, and said that many people who are most in need of a program like Drug Court aren’t eligible to participate. More than one mentioned that many of the statistics about Drug Courts come from the people who run the programs. There is no one unifying “drug court program”–each one is different.

Do you have experience with drug courts? Have you worked inside of one? Have you been a drug court ‘client’? Do you think we should have more programs like drug court? or do you think we’re missing the point?