Saturday, January 9, 2010
Our View on Crime and Punishment: Therapy with Teeth
Drug courts save money, reduce crowding, aid non-violent offenders.
In the mid-1990s, Carson Fox was a prosecutor in conservative Lexington, S.C., where being tough on crime comes with the territory. But another social undercurrent was also at work. "We found that in talking to citizens, nearly everyone had been touched by addiction and wanted to know if we were doing something that works, and if not, why not?" Fox recalled. He became part of an experiment: drug courts.
Like so many who've seen them in action, Fox is now an advocate of this alternative to regular courts. Their aim is to get at the underlying problem — through "therapy with teeth," as one judge put it.
Drug courts are only for non-violent offenders whose crimes, from marijuana possession to theft, are connected to abuse or addiction. Participants typically appear weekly before a judge and case workers for as long as 18 months. They submit to drug tests, treatment and more. If they graduate, their records are often wiped clean. Dropouts can go to prison, and many do. Studies vary widely, but they tend to show that well-administered adult drug courts can reduce recidivism by up to 35%. Not a magic bullet, obviously, but that is a lot of lives saved.
For lower-income participants, the courts can be a once-in-a-lifetime chance at sustained treatment. They have buy-in from the right as well as the left: The Bush and Clinton administrations both directed federal funding to state and local drug courts. Since the first court opened in Florida in 1989, they have expanded to every state and now number around 2,100.
Critics argue that those who flunk out might end up serving longer sentences and giving up privacy. But participation is voluntary. Arguments that they cause more arrests seem overblown. If expanded further, drug courts have the potential to help reduce soaring taxpayer costs, relieve prison overcrowding and give non-violent offenders a better shot at rehabilitation.
All this is sorely needed because the justice and prison system is in crisis. More than one in 100 U.S. adults are in prison, and a record 7.2 million are under supervision. While tough sentences have proved to be an essential tool for getting repeat violent offenders off the streets, separating out non-violent offenders makes sense and saves dollars.
Some drug courts are better than others. Success rates depend a lot on the dedication and quality of the judges and their teams.
The 55,000 adults in drug court programs make up only a small fraction of the nation's 1.5 million non-violent, drug-related offenders. But cuts triggered by the wider financial crisis could shrink that number. More publicity and public support are needed. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which advises Congress on policy, is considering making drug courts a priority. That would be a useful step.
Drug court graduates regularly testify to lives turned around from addiction, prostitution, shoplifting and more. That's the kind of success that turned prosecutor Fox into a believer —and is worth aiming for.
Posted at 12:21 AM/ET, October 21, 2008 in Law/Judiciary - Editorial, USA TODAY editorial | Permalink