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Drug Courts Shown To Reduce Crime, Rehabilitate Offenders

Hannah Madans |
April 30, 2014 | 8:42 p.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)

Skylar Whitsitt was only 19 years old when she was arrested in LaPorte, Ind. Police found multiple bags of heroin, razor blades, a smoking pipe and rolling papers in her car. 

Instead of attending a traditional court and being sent to prison, Whitsitt was brought to the LaPorte County Problem Solving Court, a drug court. 

From May 2012-Jan. 2014, Whitsitt went to court, did community service, attended three meetings a week and counseling three days a week. She also took drug tests almost daily.

Without drug court, she said she never would have admitted she had a problem or sought out help for it.

“Had I not been put into a drug court, I would never have even thought to quit at all. It would not have come to mind that I had a problem," Whitsitt said. "They taught me so many things about myself that I didn’t even know were there because I wasn’t myself. They taught me to be accountable, responsible, they basically helped shape me into who I wanted to be."

Drug courts handle the cases of non-violent substance abusing offenders. The courts aid offenders in their recovery by offering them rehabilitation programs instead of jail or prison time. Proponents of drug courts argue that they are more cost efficient than traditional courts, prevent overcrowding in prisons and lead to a reduced rate of re-arrest. 

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Some people are against the implementation of drug courts, though, claiming that they do not properly punish criminals and are “soft on crime.” 

Seth Kurzban, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said this attitude is counterproductive and instead of being hard on crime, it is hard on taxpayers. 

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) Director of Communications Christopher Deutsch concurred.

“We need to be smart on crime, not hard on crime,” he said. “The American public—you and me and everyone who pays taxes—is more concerned about having policies that make sense and are proven to work. Tough on crime may be a campaign slogan but the fact of the matter is that what people want are sensible policies that are proven to work and don’t waste money and resources.”

Whitsitt said she does not see drug courts as being soft on crime because for an addict, rehabilitation programs are incredibly difficult.

"People don’t want us just to get off easy, but in reality it would be easier for us to take the jail sentence instead of doing drug court. The outcome was that if I would have just went to jail I would have been out doing the same things I was before, absolutely, 100 percent. Doing drug court teaches you; we’re monitored and if we mess up we get sanctioned, it’s not like we’re getting off easy,” Whitsitt said.

Deutsch agreed.

“Some people would say it’s a get out of jail free card, but that’s not true either. You’re holding these people accountable. They’re in the program for a year, a year and a half two years, and you are making them confront their demons head on and do the work that recovery requires. You’re holding them accountable and you’re supervising them closely, but you’re also giving them the chance to change their lives,” he said.

Deutsch and Kurzban both added that it is easy to get drugs in prison, so going to jail or prison does not change the offenders’ access to drugs. California prisons offer some rehabilitation services, but “rehab is about making choices and changes, so to have them in prison is not successful,” Kurzban argued. 

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Many offenders come out of prison with untreated drug problems and continue to commit crimes as a result of their addiction. 

Drug courts have more positive affects, however, than simply getting offenders clean and out of jail. Drug courts are also credited with making it easier for people to find jobs, keeping families together by reducing the number of children in foster care, saving money and drastically reducing overcrowding.

“We spend, as a nation, about $70 billion on corrections and we know that jail’s expensive and we know that when we sentence addicted people there’s almost an 80 percent chance that they’re going to re-offend upon release,” Deutsch said.

Whitsitt added that if she had gone to a traditional court she would have a felony on her record and would not have been able to find employment after she was released. She now works as a barista and will begin college in the fall. Furthermore, she argued that if she had not attended drug court she would still be addicted to heroine.

She now has a 1-year-old child, born without any complications. If it was not for drug court, Whitsitt said she would have continued using while pregnant and would not have had the healthy baby she does today. 

Drug courts would also reduce the amount of overcrowding in prisons, which many states, especially California, have huge issues with. 

Deutsch and Kurzban agreed that it would drastically reduce, if not end, overcrowding.

“The more we can divert those people in the front end, the more space were going to free up. We simply cannot continue to fill our prisons like this. The cost is astronomical,” Deutsch said. 

Kurzban added that most people in prison are low-level offenders and using drug courts on a large scale “will make the correctional system better.”

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One state to implement drug courts on a large scale is Texas. Since 2001, Texas has increased its number of drug courts from seven to 74. In Texas, re-arrest rates for graduates are between 10 and 30 percentage points below that of offenders who are not in drug courts.

Deutsch said that Texas implemented drug courts to help with overcrowding. The programs went so well that Texas ended up closing down three state prisons and saving “a ton of money and a ton of lives.”

Drug courts have been expanding in most states but are usually localized, county-by-county efforts. In addition to combating overcrowding, drug courts also have the ability to save the state a lot of money.

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the state spends $47,102 per inmate per year. For every offender, drug courts save between $3,000 and $13,000, according to the NADCP.

Kurzban said it is hard to estimate exactly how much money California would save if it implemented drug courts on a large scale, but it could be billions of dollars. For every dollar invested in drug courts, there is also $27 in cost savings. These cost savings include criminal justice costs, prison beds, foster care and ER visits.

Furthermore, Deutsch and Kurzban argued that money from the Affordable Care Act might be able to be used to help drug courts. As the ACA dedicates money to both mental and physical health and addiction is classified as a mental health disease, there are many funding options. 

In the past, many drug addicts did not have health care. Since soon everyone will be required to have health care, everyone will have access to mental health services. 

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While there aren’t as many drug courts in California as there are in other states such as Texas, there are some that have seen remarkable results. A study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that California drug court participants’ re-arrest rates are 11 to 14 percent lower than offenders who do not attend drug court.

The NADCP found that 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest free for at least two years after leaving the program.

California has had some legislation introduced in recent years aimed at improving the criminal justice system. One such bill, Senate Bill 649, was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The bill would have allowed prosecutors to chose whether to charge possession of drugs for personal use as a felony or misdemeanor.

One group against this bill was the California District Attorneys Association. Sean Hoffman, the group’s director of legislation, said the group was against courts deciding how to try each case. The group, however, is not strictly against drug courts.

“Conceptually, we think that there are diversion programs that work well. We think that there are drug court programs that work well, but it depends on a number of things. It depends on how well it’s utilized in a particular area,” Hoffman said.

Another initiative in California that was aimed at improving the criminal justice system was Proposition 36

The 2000 proposition passed, allowing people convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses to receive alternative sentencing instead of being incarcerated on the condition that these individuals enter drug treatment programs. 

The proposition went into effect July 1, 2001 with $120 million allocated annually for five years for treatment services.

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A Drug Policy Alliance 2006 study found that in those five years taxpayers saved $1.4 billion.

Funding, however, was reduced in the 2008-2009 fiscal year and terminated in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, according to a UCLA study.

As a result, existing programs remain in effect, but state funding is not being put toward expanding programs. At the moment, drug courts in California can only target a small number of offenders. 

Deutsch said that drug courts seem like a pretty clear solution to a lot of the issues with our criminal justice system. The only people against it are those that think drug courts are “soft on crime” or who want large-scale legalization of drugs.

Whitsitt hopes that drug courts become more widely used because they helped her get clean and turn her life around.

"I wouldn’t want someone going through as much pain as a drug addiction to have to sit and wallow in a jail because they need a different kind of guidance and drug court has offered that,” she said. “I hope people look into it more and really see what it’s doing because punishing addicts and locking them up is not helping addicts and this helps them.”


Contact Deputy Editor Hannah Madans here.



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