By Peg O’Connor
Drug courts are better than incarceration.
Drugs courts stand at the intersection of law, medicine, economics, politics, and public policy. That intersection just keeps getting busier for reasons the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health make clear. Nearly 25 million people in the United States meet the diagnostic criteria for addiction. 24.6 million people or 9.4% of the population ages 12 and over have used illegal drugs including marijuana. Given these facts, it isn’t surprising that the highest number of arrests in 2014 were for drug violations. Of the 1.5 million arrests, the vast majority were for possession. There were also more than 1.1 million arrests for driving under the influence (DUI).
The first drug court was implemented in Miami-Dade County Florida in 1989 as an alternative to incarceration. Since then, more than 2600 drug courts have been established in the United States. While there is significant variation between drug courts, they do all share a foundational assumption: drug use and addiction primarily drive the criminal activity. Address the drugs and the criminal activity will dissipate.
Where there is a pre-adjudication drug court available, an eligible defendant is given the choice to stay within the regular legal system or divert to drug court. If she successfully completes drug court, the charges against her will be dropped. With a post-adjudication drug court, one must first enter a plea and then participate in drug court. In both scenarios, the defendant has choice about her participation at the start of the proceedings. People in drug courts always have choice about their participation; they can request the judge to execute the sentence instead of continuing with drug court. Finally, participants in drug courts exercise choice everyday about meeting the particular obligations of drug courts to go to treatment, submit to UAs, seek or keep employment etc.
Some might object that choice in the context of drug courts is illusory. The objection boils down to something quite basic: having to make a decision when you’re caught between a rock (prison) and a hard place (drug court) isn’t really a choice. It is coercion. The coercion continues within the drug court program. Not meeting a requirement or expectation will result in increasingly serious penalties, the final of which may be serving the original sentence. It doesn’t really count as a choice if not picking door A gets you tossed in Door B of the slammer.
I’m sympathetic to and partially in agreement with this objection especially when one considers the racist and classist dimensions to the War on Drugs where people of color and poor people disproportionately are caught in the legal system. (For sure, we need serious revision of our drug laws and sentencing guidelines, which might reduce the sheer number of drug offenses. That’s a different argument for a different time.)
My intent is to argue that drug court is the much better option for individuals who are caught in the legal system now. Prisons offer very little rehabilitation of any sort. Yes, there are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings but for a host of reasons, these don’t work for many people. Prison forecloses opportunities while a well-run drug court provides opportunities for people to increase their options and choices. A drug court team comprises a judge, police officers, prosecutors, probation officers, and mental health and treatment professionals along with court administrators and court reporters. Treatment is mandatory along with regular drug testing and counseling. There is regular contact with members of the drug court team. There are consequences for failing to meet obligations and rewards for fulfilling them well.
Supervision may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for recovery in the beginning. Fear of sanctions can be an important source of motivation but it will never be enough. Yes, drug court provides supervision and sanction, but it also provides something equally important that founder of the Salvation Army identified in another context. General Booth considered “the first vital step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human being cares enough for them to take an interest in the question whether they are to rise or sink.” The sentiment of “saving outcasts” is troubling in a double sense. No one can save another and “outcast” is a very negative judgment. However, addicts are in some senses outcasts especially when they are also facing criminal charges.
What interests me is that it sometimes takes another’s having interest in me before I can even have an interest in myself. People who struggle with drugs and alcohol often lose interest in our own well-being. We may not even be able to take an interest in whether we rise or sink; it may simply not matter. Our dignity is in tatters and any sense we are decent people has long left the scene. In many ways, we need to borrow or lean on the decency that others show us because we cannot generate it for ourselves yet.
The members of drug court teams I’ve met are decent individuals even if at times they are skeptical. They show their interest, care and concern by building relationships with participants over the course of the program. They come to know their families, histories, fears, and aspirations. They may help with very practical tasks such as finding housing or employment or getting to a doctor’s appointment. They share in the accomplishment of a new job or a promotion. Members of a drug court team are able to be reliable reporters on how far a participant has come and perhaps how far she still needs to go. At times, they provide the interest in whether one rises or sinks when a person cannot generate it for herself.
Drug courts help to restore the dignity, decency, respect, and well-being to its participants by giving them the opportunities to make choices, take responsibility, learn from mistakes, hold themselves to higher standards, fulfill obligations, and build relationships with other members of drug court. All of this is necessary for drug court participants to recognize that not only do they have something to lose but they also have everything to gain. This doesn’t entail that there will not be struggles and hard times but it increases that chances that one will be better equipped to handle them.