Drug courts celebrated their 25th anniversary last year. Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Many drug court judges oppose opioid maintenance and require patients to become completely abstinent as a condition of participation or graduation. They believe that maintenance simply amounts to swapping one drug addiction for another. This critique betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of opioid pharmacology and addictive behavior.
Many longtime supporters of drug courts have become dismayed by the extent to which the courts now reach into the lives of people whose only infraction was to light up a joint. More Americans are arrested for pot possession than any other drug offense, with more than 650,000 such arrests in 2012. Some pot users who might have simply faced a fine in the regular court system are instead getting moved into the drug-court system for months on end. They are often required to pay for expensive treatment programs and risk jail time if they break program rules along the way. (See also: Moving Away from Drug Courts)
Some countries have adopted drug treatment courts as a way to reduce drug-related incarceration. Drug treatment courts, also called “drug courts,” are meant to offer court-supervised treatment for drug dependence for some persons who would otherwise go to prison for a drug-related offense.
America’s growing reliance on drug courts is an ineffective allocation of scarce state resources. Drug courts can needlessly widen the net of criminal justice involvement, and cannot replace the need for improved treatment services in the community. Of the nearly 8 million people in the U.S. reporting needing treatment for drug use, less than one fourth of people classified with substance abuse or a dependence on drugs and/or alcohol receives treatment, and for those who do receive treatment, over 37 percent are referred by the criminal justice system.
Drug courts have spread across the country, yet available research does not support their continued expansion. Most drug courts do not reduce imprisonment, do not save money or improve public safety, and fail to help those struggling with drug problems. The drug court model must be corrected to play a more effective role in improving the wellbeing of people involved in the criminal justice system who suffer substance misuse problems – while preserving scarce public safety resources.
By combining drug treatment with ongoing judicial supervision, drug courts seek to break the cycle of addiction, crime, and repeat incarceration. While practice varies widely from state to state (and county to county), the outlines of the drug court model are clear: addicted offenders are linked to treatment; their progress is monitored by a drug court team composed of the judge, attorneys, and program staff; participants engage in direct interaction with the judge, who responds to progress and setbacks with a range of rewards and sanctions; and successful participants generally have the charges against them dismissed or reduced, while those who fail receive jail or prison sentences.
Drug Courts are Not the Answer finds that drug courts are an ineffective and inappropriate response to drug law violations. Many, all the way up to the Obama administration, consider the continued proliferation of drug courts to be a viable solution to the problem of mass arrests and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet this report finds that drug courts do not reduce incarceration, do not improve public safety, and do not save money when compared to the wholly punitive model they seek to replace. The report calls for reducing the role of the criminal justice system in responding to drug use by expanding demonstrated health approaches, including harm reduction and drug treatment, and by working toward the removal of criminal penalties for drug use.