Drug Courts Don’t Necessarily Keep People Out of Jail
Without drug courts in the mix, some addicts might have received the help they needed without getting involved in the justice system. Before, if a person was arrested for possession, the prosecutors might have dismissed charges, put him in touch with a social worker or issued a warning or referral for treatment. A clear and growing demand for community treatment might have pushed policy-makers to expand resources. Now well-meaning police, prosecutors and judges send people to drug court, and given the lack of other options, people are often grateful for the opportunity to get treatment.
The real catch, though, is that generally a person must plead guilty to participate, with the conviction reduced or overturned only if he or she is successful. Disobeying court rules or experiencing a relapse—which is a natural part of recovery—can result in jail time. And when people fail drug court, they face traditional sanctions. In this way, participants become vulnerable not just to incarceration but to the pervasive aftereffects of a criminal conviction—which can include difficulty finding employment, being banned from benefits like public housing and food stamps and denied the right to vote.
For some individuals, drug courts may be helpful, but we shouldn’t mistake them for a ceasefire in the War on Drugs. If drug addiction is a public health and/or public safety problem, then a better solution to that problem would be to expand access to free or low-cost community-based drug addiction and mental health treatment and to implement harm-reduction initiatives at the local level, rather than arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating addicts at the state and federal levels, which is much more costly, much less effective, and much more corrosive of civil liberties.