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Drug Courts Are the Answer

• August 15, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: SERGIGN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Eric Holder’s plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders is met with praise, and supported by the facts.

In a speech on Monday in San Francisco, attorney general Eric Holder announced a dramatic change in the way the Justice Department would charge drug offenders. Low-level, non-violent offenders will no longer face the harsh, mandatory minimum sentences that have been the norm for decades.

“While I have the utmost faith in—and dedication to—America’s legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken,” Holder said in his speech. “The course we are on is far from sustainable.” (The full text is available on the DoJ website, here.)

Holder made it clear that what has become the status quo in the criminal justice system isn’t working—and it’s costing us a fortune. From the Washington Post:

The cost of incarceration in the United States was $80 billion in 2010, according to the Justice Department. While the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent. Justice Department officials said federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity. …

Although the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in American prisons, according to the Justice Department. More than 219,000 federal inmates are behind bars, and almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes.

The Justice Department’s new directive to address this escalating crisis is entitled “Smart on crime,” a deliberate shift away from the previous terminology “tough on crime.” The policy package lays out, among others, a plan to encourage alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, “such as drug courts, specialty courts, or other diversion programs.”

There are all different types of federal, state, and local drug courts, but typically they will combine mandatory addiction-treatment programs with random drug tests and frequent court appearances to monitor the offender’s progress. There are also all different types of programs that are tailored to adults, juveniles, veterans, college students, and families when, for instance, child custody is at risk.

It’s not just wishful thinking: There is abundant evidence that drug courts work. They can effectively treat addiction while simultaneously reduce prison populations and save taxpayers money. Here’s another excerpt from Holder’s speech:

In Texas, investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year alone.  The same year, similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. From Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio, to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond – reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources. Let me be clear: these measures have not compromised public safety. In fact, many states have seen drops in recidivism rates at the same time their prison populations were declining.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) immediately applauded Holder’s announcement on Monday, sending out a press release with additional numbers to back it his plan: “There are now over 2,700 drug courts in the United States serving 135,000 people a year. Research shows that 75% of people who complete drug courts are never arrested again, and drug courts save up to $27 for every $1 invested.”

It’s no surprise that an association of drug court professionals would be in favor of a nationwide expansion of drug court usage, of course. But studies by many different organizations and scientists have come up with similar, convincing results.

In 2011, the Urban Institute wrapped up a five-year study of 23 drug courts and six comparison jurisdictions in eight states, and concluded that drug courts did reduce the number of crimes, re-arrests, and the overall time that offenders spent incarcerated in those jurisdictions. The study also found that “drug courts save an average of $5,680 per participant, returning a net benefit of $2 for every $1 spent.”

Another study by RTI International researchers, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, looked specifically at long-term rates of recidivism in a drug court in Hillsborough County, Florida. (According to the NADCP, the first drug court in the U.S. was established in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989.) The researchers found that offenders who participated in the drug court program there were significantly less likely to be arrested again, specifically in the period 12 to 18 months after their initial arrest. The study found that the program had room for improvement, but the results were promising:

Although the drug court effect was somewhat delayed (it was not significant prior to 12 months) and short-lived (it was not significant after 18 months), the fact that significant program effects were observed during a time period that coincides with the conclusion of drug court participation for graduates and a time period well beyond initial program exposure, suggests that drug court participants are more likely than comparable offenders not exposed to drug court to remain arrest free when no longer under community supervision.

Yet another study by the non-profit Justice Management Institute of three adult drug courts in the U.S. found that their implementation had a benefit for the law enforcement community and the community at large, as well as for the offenders. According to the study’s results, the drug courts “have raised the awareness of the bench and court staff, law enforcement and probation officers, other social service providers, and the community about the treatment and other needs of substance-involved offenders.”

This last point is an important one. Increasing our sensitivity and understanding of a drug offender’s motivations doesn’t make us soft on crime; it makes us better prepared to fight it.

By coincidence, Holder made his speech on the same day that a federal judge ruled that New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics violated the constitutional rights of minority citizens, giving criminal-justice-reform advocates two reasons to celebrate this week. Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights Under Law, told the New York Times that the effect of the two announcements was “historic, groundbreaking, and potentially game-changing.”

Jennifer Gonnerman, a journalist who has written extensively about the criminal justice system’s real-life impact on individuals and families, wrote on New York magazine’s site on Monday: “Fifty years from now, when college students read about the history of America’s criminal-justice system, August 12, 2013 may turn out to be one of those watershed moments: a day when America took a hard look at the human costs of its criminal-justice policies—and began to reverse course.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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