New Report Finds Effectiveness of Drug Courts

New federal research is giving momentum to the call for reduced penalties and more rehabilitation for drug offenders – including juveniles – across the nation.

A study funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that alternatives to handling drug cases, such as specialized courts that usher more people into rehab, can sharply drop recidivism rates, scale back on overall crime and produce deep cost cuts in an overwhelmed criminal justice system.

The report comes as the nation is in somewhat of a split over how best to handle many criminal cases, including drug offenses.

As Massachusetts considers a crackdown on repeat violent offenders, the position by many lawmakers has been to ease drug penalties.

In Missouri, legislators passed a bill to create more parity in sentencing for powdered and crack cocaine offenses. In the push to cap violent and drug crime in the 1980s and 1990s, many states passed tough laws that skewed penalties for different types of cocaine, with the result being more minorities - and especially blacks − were locked up for longer periods of time.

Many states, and even Congress late last year, have revisited those laws, pulling back in hopes of reducing prison populations and the high costs of policing, the courts and incarceration.

“The easing of penalties for drug crimes in some states has gone hand in hand with the expansion of drug courts,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

She pointed to a 2010 study by her group that found increased use of sentencing alternatives had, specifically in New York, “resulted in diverting prison-bound defendants into treatment programs to reduce the use of prison.”

Still, drug courts, which are mostly specialized forums that stress rehabilitative justice over punitive, might not be an automatic fix for a troubled system: “The outcomes will vary from court to court, and region to region, and state to state,” Porter said.

There were, for example, some discouraging findings in the report – such as drug courts appearing to have little impact on homelessness, depression and family emotional support.

Tracy Siska, head of the Chicago Justice Project, said drug courts do work “for a very selective audience,” where the offenders have bottomed out, or are in dire need of treatment. “If that marriage of circumstances exists, they can be very beneficial in cutting down on all the negatives.”

He cautions against too wide of an expansion of drug court that pushes intense treatment on the casual user who might rebel against the rehab, especially at a young age, and get caught in a cycle of offending.

“They can fail, and miserably,” he said.

And this can prove especially troubling for children entering system. Studies show a huge percentage of suspects charged with crimes test positive for some use of drugs. There have also been studies showing an increase in marijuana use, while cocaine use has dipped. But if a suspect like a minor delinquent is arrested after a first-time or casual use, they risk dropping to a low in a system so heavy with drug use and violence.

However, the NIJ-funded report, while giving a nod to such drawbacks as not substantially boosting income or employment status, stressed positives for the nation’s 2,600 drug courts – more than 450 of them at the juvenile level. The upside of drug courts include a decrease in drug relapse, a drop in reoffending and lower overall criminal justice costs as offenders were eased back into society, something that is expected to help steady state budgets that were so wrecked by the down economy.

Among other findings, the research released by the NIJ found:

  • About 40 percent of drug court participants reported less criminal activity, compared with 53 percent of offenders who went through traditional courts.
  • Fewer rearrests were reported for drug-court participants than offenders of similar crimes who were processed through criminal court. The difference was 52 percent to 62 percent.

But the number of drug courts for juveniles has actually slid. Exactly why was not clear but a trend towards more drug courts overall could also benefit younger offenders, according to some experts.

“In many instances defendants with no priors who are considered low level may be juveniles or youthful offenders,” Porter said. “An expansion of sentencing alternatives that provides additional options and can result in individualized sentencing that takes into account a defendant's background – including age, and other factors – would help to rethink and reduce the nation's current reliance on incarceration.”

Last month, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole noted that some $74 billion is spent on corrections at the state and federal level every year, and stressed that a way out of the spiraling costs – which are matched by huge jumps in incarceration levels – is to spread the use of drug courts.

Cole, addressing a gathering of court and justice experts in New York, said the federal prison budget had almost doubled since 2000, to $6.6 billion with more than 218,000 federal offenders behind bars and 105,500 on supervised release.

“We face real criminal justice challenges,” he said. “Few would dispute that public safety requires incarceration – and that imprisonment is, at least partially, responsible for the dramatic drop in crime rates... It is in our interests to find alternative ways of dealing with offenders.”

Eric Ferkenhoff is the editor of The Chicago Bureau.

Photo by DeKalb County, Illinois Drug Court