Drug Courts: More Evidence They Reduce Repeat Offenses Still, Some Criticize Use of Treatment over Punishment
Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
What began as an experiment in Miami less than a decade ago is now emerging as one of the most significant reforms to the American criminal justice system in the last half century.
In city after city, the latest research shows that drug courts are significantly slowing the revolving door of justice by addressing the root causes of crime.
Unlike traditional criminal courts, drug courts operate under the idea that if a drug addict steals to support his or her habit, it makes sense to stop the thefts by first treating the addiction. Rather than focusing on punishing nonviolent drug abusers by throwing them in prison, drug courts seek to solve the underlying problems that lead an individual toward criminal activities. Yet the courts aren't without their detractors. Critics say speciality courts are expensive, and they divert money from other cases that are more pressing. Some, too, argue that the courts are too "soft" on criminals - placing more emphasis on treatment than punishment. Still, their success in reducing repeat-offender rates has been impressive. "If you can reduce the individual's demand for drugs then you are going to reduce the need for that individual to commit criminal acts to buy drugs," says Margaret Beaudry, research director at Drug Strategies, a Washington-based nonprofit group. The first drug court was set up in Miami in 1989 as a way to reduce the number of drug abusers clogging local jails. It has since grown into a national phenomenon. Today there are 200 drug courts fully operational and another 100 planning to open, according to a recent report by Drug Strategies. The specialized courts are located in 48 states and Washington, D.C. and have handled 40,000 arrested drug users. More than 24,000 have successfully completed a drug court program. "We are seeing dramatic reductions in recidivism. They aren't committing crimes anymore. They are getting jobs, supporting their families, helping their kids," says Ms. Beaudry. A growing record of success is converting skeptics. "I think it is fair to say that probably by the year 2000 we may see drug courts in a substantial portion of jurisdictions in the country," says Jeffrey Tauber, a former drug court judge in Oakland, Calif., and president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. A survey of the 50 oldest drug courts found that 70 percent of drug court participants had either overcome their addictions and been released from the court-sponsored programs or were still in treatment. By comparison, success rates at stand-alone drug treatment facilities approach 30 percent, experts say, with roughly 70 percent of patients dropping out. …