03 May The Downside of Drug Courts: A Call for Change
In the long search for solutions to the problem of chronic drug abuse, one of the most promising developments has been the creation of drug courts reserved for non-violent offenders caught possessing illegal substances. Drug courts offer substance abusers taken into custody by the police an opportunity to avoid jail time–if they agree to submit to treatment and rehabilitation. Those who have been arrested for possession of an illegal intoxicant can apply for diversion to a drug court, and, if they have no history of violent crime, have not previously been convicted of selling illegal substances, and can prove they really are suffering from an addiction, their chances of being moved into the drug court system are excellent-assuming, of course, that drug courts are available (there are about 2,600 of these alternative judicial bodies in the U.S.).
Once a person has been given permission to appear in drug court, he or she must agree to plead guilty to the crime as charged before the process can continue. At that point, a judge will sentence him or her to a prison term, but that sentence will be stayed and the defendant will be ordered to supervised treatment for addiction at a court-approved rehabilitation center, most likely on an outpatient basis. From that time on, the defendant will essentially be on probation, and, in addition to attending regular treatment sessions, will have to appear before the court to give progress reports and pass a series of random drug tests. If the defendant follows the sentencing requirements and finishes the treatment program, the conviction for drug possession would be expunged from his or her criminal record. But if the defendant fails a drug test while on probation, or violates the terms of his or her sentence by failing to attend treatment regularly, the criminal conviction would immediately be activated and he or she would be taken into custody and sent to prison.
While drug courts are still relatively new to the U.S. criminal justice system, they are becoming more and more popular due to the money they save in prison costs and the lower recidivism rates of those who go through them.
A Vision Compromised
But while a compassionate approach that recognizes drug addiction as a disease instead of a moral failing is always to be preferred, drug courts appear to be operating under a conflicted mandate. Before entering the system, each person who goes to drug court is required to give up his right to a trial before being allowed the privilege of asking for treatment and is stigmatized at the beginning by the guilty verdict and terms of a sentence that he or she has no choice but to accept. This is not a problem for those who complete their treatment programs successfully and do not relapse, but, unfortunately, relapse is a common and even expected occurrence during drug rehabilitation. In fact, many recovering addicts relapse several times before their recovery finally becomes stable. But the drug court system is harsh and unforgiving with addicts who slip up, and many people are being whisked off to prison who could very well conquer their addictions if they were given more than a cursory chance to do so.
Also, while the decision to exclude violent criminals from the drug courts system may make sense, refusing to allow anyone who has ever been convicted of selling drugs access to the path of rehabilitation is much more questionable. Perhaps no one who was heavily involved in the manufacture and/or sale of illegal drugs is deserving of sympathy, but some addicts fall into low-level drug dealing only when they are struggling and desperate for money to feed their drug habit. In these cases, addiction was clearly at the root of the illegal behavior, and someone under the spell of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine who chooses to sell drugs briefly at some point in the past should not automatically be prohibited from getting help for his or her chemical dependency through drug court intervention.
On the surface, drug courts do seem to be dedicated to the proposition that treatment is preferable to punishment. But the commitment they make to this principle is compromised, made partial and shallow by the draconian rules that deny many addicts a fair opportunity to take advantage of the type of rehabilitation services that could make a difference in their lives.
A Work in Progress
Drug courts represent a step in the right direction, as incarceration has proven to be a poor substitute for treatment in the case of drug addicts whose criminal activities are being driven by their substance abuse issues. Nevertheless, the unforgiving nature of the drug court system appears to be placing artificial limits on the number of substance abusers who are able to get the help they need, thereby undermining the effectiveness of this novel and constructive concept.
A little added flexibility could make the system much more effective and responsive, saving taxpayers even more money by rescuing greater numbers of endangered souls from the abyss. Drug addicts are complex human beings with difficult histories, and reforming drug court rules in a way that acknowledges this reality could help these judicial bodies adhere more closely to their original mission of bringing hope and compassion to those who are desperately in need of both.
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