Drug Courts Gain in Popularity
> 2/29/2008 7:59:51 AM

Research has effectively discredited the belief that drug addiction is proof of a weak will. Repeated studies illuminate the ways in which illicit drug abuse changes the nature of our neurology and produces a very real biological condition. But what effect should this knowledge have on the way we treat and punish those affected? Drug use, possession and distribution is very definitively against the law, but would our society benefit from adopting, en masse, an approach that lends greater weight to the concept of drug abuse as a mental health condition better countered with treatment and prevention than jail time?

Sending repeat low-level drug offenders to jail is undeniably costly to the tax-paying public; many of these individuals will be re-arrested at some point after release. This is especially true if they do not receive rehabilatory treatment. And rates of incarceration for drug crimes have increased significantly in the last decade (federal drug convictions were 26% higher in 2006 than in 2000). Many states now look to divert these repeat offenders away from prison and into state-sponsored treatment programs through the drug court system. The concept of such specialty systems, which have operated on a small scale for nearly 20 years, is fairly simple: non-violent offenders charged with possession or intoxication who are deemed not to pose a significant threat to the community are offered the option of pleading guilty, attending treatment programs, undergoing regular drug screenings and reporting back to the presiding judge for a period usually lasting at least one year.

Do these courts reward or excuse deviant behaviors? Not at all. On a very pragmatic level, a sizable transition toward such an approach would save millions of taxpayer dollars as housing offenders in treatment facilities is less expensive than placing them in jail cells. Their periods of punishment are often shorter as well. And drug courts are by no means a fringe proposition; they're already functioning in many states with the full support of the highest levels of our federal government. In 2000, California passed a proposition designed to offer non-violent first or second-time drug offenders a place in rehab rather than incarceration. Does this approach amount to legalizing or tolerating the destructive influence of illicit drugs? Absolutely not. Rehab is in no way a free ride. And evidence clearly points toward research, treatment and prevention as the most effective way to combat the very real epidemic. Numbers vary widely, but the re-arrest rates of drug court graduates have been less than half that of their control group peers in many studies.

The most obvious shortcoming of the rehab over jail philosophy: treatment is most successful when voluntary, and patience is unfortunately the key element in the recovery equation. Many addicts travelling through the drug court system will return to their old habits. But underfunding is a far larger obstacle to the success of the drug courts. Our government still spends more than twice as much on enforcing drug law as it does on treatment and prevention measures. And while the endless production and circulation of illegal drugs must be curbed, statistics indicate that reversing these spending percentages will most likely reduce crime rates on the whole and lower the number of Americans in prison for minor drug offenses. At a time when the ratio of incarcerated adults is at an all-time high of nearly 1 in 99, this is a very appealing possibility.

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