Hug-a-Thug Pays Off: Drug Courts Aren't a Panacea for Drug Addiction, but They Have Won Hearts and Opened Pocketbooks in State Legislatures

By Thompson, Mark | State Legislatures, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Hug-a-Thug Pays Off: Drug Courts Aren't a Panacea for Drug Addiction, but They Have Won Hearts and Opened Pocketbooks in State Legislatures


Thompson, Mark, State Legislatures


Drug courts have joined the ranks of motherhood and apple pie as causes embraced by legislators, judging from votes on appropriations measures in a diverse array of states over the last several years.

Lawmakers from New Jersey and California to Oklahoma and Idaho have endorsed drug courts, which impose intensive, judicially monitored treatment in lieu of incarceration on criminal offenders with drug problems. Appropriation bills have sailed through those legislatures unanimously.

There are now more than 1,600 drug courts nationwide, up from about 100 a decade ago. There was only one in 1989, when officials in Miami opened the nation's first drug court at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Many drug courts were launched as pilot programs with three-year federal grants that started to run out about five years ago, leaving their fate in the hands of states and counties. According to the latest tally released by the National Drug Court Institute, legislatures in 35 states have appropriated funds to help fill the void.

State legislative support wasn't always there for the drug-court concept. At first, the treatment programs, which allow drug-addicted criminals to avoid spending time behind bars, were considered a touchy-feely social experiment that could easily label their backers "soft on crime."

"There was skepticism all the way up," says Judge Keith Starrett, formerly a state circuit judge in Mississippi who is now on the federal bench. "Law enforcement was skeptical and the legislature was skeptical. Lawmakers didn't trust anything that appeared soft on crime."

That misconception has been put to rest, says Starrett, echoing comments from officials in other states. Referring addicted offenders to drug courts is as effective and much cheaper than sending them to prison, they say.

WINNING HEARTS--AND FUNDING

Judges, looking for ways to stop the revolving door for drug offenders, tested the alternative in their own courts and discovered how effective the approach could be.

"A lot of people were calling it a hug-a-thug program," recalls Joseph Craft, drug court project manager with the Mississippi Administrative Office of the Courts. But drug courts, which require participants to attend counseling sessions and submit to frequent random drug tests, under the threat of stints behind bars for any back-sliding, "are a lot tougher than traditional probation," says Craft.

A report released by the Mississippi state auditor in 2003 pointed out that if 500 offenders were sent to drug court instead of prison, the state could save $5.4 million a year. The Legislature responded that year with a bill authorizing a statewide network of drugs courts and the following year with an appropriations measure funding them--to the tune of about $5 million for FY 2006.

The money for Mississippi's drug courts comes from a special $10 assessment on an array of felony crimes and misdemeanors, from driving under the influence to litter law infractions. The payments are funneled into a state fund from which a state advisory board makes allocations to county drug courts.

In Idaho, it was the prospect of a costly new prison to house a steadily growing number of inmates addicted to methamphetamine that put the Legislature in a receptive frame of mind in 2000.

"Judges had started drug courts pretty much on their own, working after hours," recalls Senator Brent Hill. "When we saw those judges going the extra mile, actually donating their own time, and coming in and sharing success stories with us, that is what got the Legislature motivated. …

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