Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Drug Courts: Reasons to Be Skeptical

with 3 comments

Reason #1:

  • This American Life reports on a Georgia drug court gone really awry. Like, batshit-crazy awry.

OK, you say, but that’s Georgia. I, a native Georgian, say, OK, you may have a point. What about drug courts that are running as intended? Well… it turns out there’s still reason for concern. To wit:

Reasons #2-4:

  • Drug Policy Alliance issues a new report concluding that drug courts do not reduce incarceration, do not save money, and do not improve public safety. Says DPA’s Daniel Abrahamson: “Drug courts have actually helped to increase, not decrease, the criminal justice entanglement of people who struggle with drugs.”
  • The Justice Policy Institute issues a similar report (PDF) concluding that drug courts are neither the most effective nor the most cost-effective treatment options, and serve merely to widen the net of the criminal justice system. (The report also discusses the proliferation of other specialty courts modeled upon drug courts, like veterans courts and mental health courts.) (h/t: Doug Berman)
  • And that was just in the past week! See also this 2009 statement from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, on how drug courts endanger defendants’ constitutional rights

As I’ve noted before, drug courts don’t necessarily keep people out of jail — to the contrary, by offering prosecutors a seemingly benign intermediate option for dealing with low-level drug offenders, they may widen the net of the criminal justice system, so people are being prosecuted for drug crimes that otherwise would not have been charged at all if the prosecutor’s only options were, don’t charge or seek a conviction. Then, once those offenders are caught up in the maw of the drug court, they’re subject to imprisonment if they trip up. And, addiction recovery not being a particularly easy or one-way process, they often do trip up. (Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of addiction, here’s a pop summary of recent research. It turns out that “the most successful treatments are nonconfrontational approaches that allow self-propelled change” which, hey, doesn’t really sound anything like drug court.)

This is not to say, of course, that drug courts are uniformly terrible. For some individuals, getting arrested might be a wake-up call and drug court might provide the structure needed to get into recovery. And for some other individuals, getting arrested may not be a wake-up call but at least they may be functional enough to make it through the drug-court requirements and get out of the program without a conviction. But unquestionably, there are also individuals for whom getting arrested and funneled into drug court is just going to start a vicious cycle of more arrests and, eventually, incarceration. Twenty years into the drug-court experiment, I think we can call it: there seem to be more of those latter individuals than the former two categories. And even worse, we’ll never know if those individuals might have taken care of their addiction eventually in some other way, but now their lives are ruined by a criminal record. (Of course, finally, there are also individuals who don’t really have a drug problem but have to go through the rigmarole of drug court because they have the misfortune to get arrested while using drugs for fun. In my opinion that’s just a waste of state resources, but what do I know.)

Look, probably the central human challenge of living in a modern liberal state is that we have channeled our collective coercive power over each other into all these institutions, and the very same institution can be, at once, an enormous help to one person, and enormously repressive to the next. That’s not a problem specific to drug courts — let’s say instead of the criminal justice system we had a network of free community drug rehab facilities open to all, no arrest required; there would certainly still be repressive elements in such a network — but it’s a problem we should be aware of when assessing what we think about drug courts, and imagining alternative ways of setting up the world we live in that might strike the balance between helping and repressing a little better. We need to break out of the box of assuming that the criminal justice system needs to be the box.

Written by sara

March 29, 2011 at 7:08 am

3 Responses

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  1. I heard the story on NPR this weekend and was really appalled that the woman the story was about was locked up after supposedly getting caught drinking (it sounded more like the judge forced her to admit to it) and left in isolation while the judge went on vacation. We are treating drug offenders like they are not human, throwing them off to the side and ignoring the fact that they need help, not imprisonment. Most drug users are addicts, not criminals, and addicts require rehabilitation and a support system, not an isolated jail cell.


    March 29, 2011 at 9:12 am

  2. Well, drug courts seem to be a special case in the sense that other problem-solving enterprises, like mental health courts, have been proven to reduce recidivism. There’s decent matched-pairs research coming out of UCSF about them. What is not unique to drug courts is the surprising lack of enthusiasm from the research community to conduct serious recidivism studies so that we know, once and for all, what works.

    The irony, of course, is that the whole premise of the problem solving approach is that it was supposed to be personalized.

    Hadar Aviram

    March 29, 2011 at 10:05 am

  3. Have you read Courtroom 302? Bogira has edited some of my brother’s pieces at the Chicago Reader and it was recommended to me by a friend. I haven’t picked it up yet, but I plan on it:

    Jonathan Doster

    April 3, 2011 at 9:58 am

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