Should Drug Court be Mandatory?

By: - May 3, 2012 12:00 am

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks with addiction program alumni on March 1, 2012 before a speech at the Rescue Mission of Trenton outlining his proposal for making drug court mandatory for non-violent drug-addicted offenders. (New Jersey Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen) 

Since the first drug court opened its doors in 1989 in Miami, every state has embraced the popular drug treatment program for nonviolent drug offenders.

The voluntary programs require that for at least a year, offenders submit to regular drug tests, check in with a supervising judge and complete court-prescribed treatments. If offenders fail a drug test, miss a court appearance or commit a new crime, they face strict sanctions, which can include jail time.

Results show the program has consistently lowered recidivism rates, while returning on investments. A national study found that for every dollar invested in drug courts, they returned .21.  They have been a favorite program of both Democrats and Republicans.

So it might follow that making the court mandatory would help even more people and reap more benefits for the community. New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney and board member of a halfway house for recovering addicts, thinks so. In his 2013 budget proposal, Christie asked for an additional $2.5 million investment in the state’s drug court program to reach all eligible offenders, not just the ones who choose it.

“Budgets come and go, taxes go up and down; but saving lives, that lasts forever,” Christie said in a March speech at the Trenton Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization with a residential drug treatment program.

Drug court professionals are encouraged by Christie’s strong endorsement of drug court, but some worry that the untested mandatory requirement could jeopardize the program’s success. All 50 states have drug court, but it’s never been mandatory.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Ray Lesniak has introduced an alternative plan for a pilot program that would limit the mandatory courts to only two counties and expand the eligibility requirements to participate. But Christie has said a pilot program does not go far enough. He is currently working on preparing an alternative to Lesniak’s bill.

New attitudes about offenders

Christie’s focus on treatment rather than incarceration for all criminal addicts reflects shifting attitudes toward drug offenders nationwide. The President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy recently announced a new approach focusing more resources on treatment and reentry after prison and treating addiction more as a public health problem, not a criminal problem.

This shift in attitude is encouraging, says David Cloud, a program associate at the justice policy and research think tank Vera Institute of Justice, but Cloud cautions that, “drug courts are not a magic wand to improve public health, enhance public safety, and reduce costs.”

In fact, some see problems with drug courts. Defense attorneys and offenders rights groups, for example, have criticized the programs for forcing defendants to plead guilty before they are accepted into the system and allowing prosecutors to decide who can participate. A 2011 report from the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that works on justice reform, criticized drug courts for being a gatekeeper to substance abuse treatment.

“We shouldn’t funnel all the treatment resources through the criminal justice system,” says Tracy Velazquez, the institute’s executive director. “We’ve talked with people in Baltimore that specifically went and got themselves arrested just so they could get drug treatment. That shouldn’t happen.”

Velazquez also says that eligibility for drug court should be expanded to people with serious criminal histories instead of just substance abuse charges, which is part of Lesniak’s proposal. Christie’s eligibility requirements are still being hashed out, although spokesman Michael Drewniak told the Star-Ledger that Christie’s plan will “concentrate on diverting nonviolent offenders.”

Under Christie’s plan, all eligible offenders would be diverted from the traditional trial court and sent to mandatory drug court where they would be supervised by a presiding judge. They would live in a residential drug treatment facility during their treatment. The program would rely on some existing private treatment centers and other government-run facilities.

But concerns have been raised about the costs of the program and availability of treatment beds in the state. Senator Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate budget and appropriations committee, has said that Christie’s initial allocation of $2.5 million falls far short of the actual cost for the statewide program. An estimate prepared by the state’s administrative office of the courts found that Lesniak’s two-county pilot program would cost about $2.6 million annually and serve 131 people a year, while Christie’s statewide plan would cost about $9.1 million a year, serving 482 people. The estimate did not include start-up costs.  

Should it be mandatory? 

Drug court is most successful with people who are chronically addicted to drugs, have failed with probation or jail and have a high likelihood of committing more drug-related crimes, according to a 2011 report by the National Institute of Justice, which researches crime and justice at the U.S. Department of Justice. Also, the potential for cost savings is greatest with this group of offenders, since they’re the ones most likely to continue to commit crimes to fuel their habit, the report said. The study also found that submitting people with mild addictions and who are less likely to commit crimes to drug court supervision is much less effective. 

Based on these findings, some researchers are wary of putting every nonviolent drug offender through drug court. “You want to make sure you’re dealing with someone who has a true addiction and you’re not wasting resources on people who don’t need (the program),” says Deborah Saunders, senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts. “You don’t want to just pull in everyone who has a drug charge.”

The drug court model depends heavily on the personal relationship forged between the offender and the supervising judge. In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice study, the offender’s perception of the fairness and demeanor of the presiding judge was the strongest predictor of how the offender would behave after the program is done.

But the study also found that that the level of motivation when entering the drug court program was not a good predictor of outcomes, bolstering Christie’s and other legislator’s argument that a mandatory program would be effective. Since drug court has never been mandatory, however, there’s no evidence showing how large groups of reluctant drug court participants would fare in the program.

That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, says Christopher Deutsch, communications director for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “Drug court professionals are highly trained and they’re ready to deal both with people who are ready to commit and folks that think they are just there to stay out of jail,” Deutsch says.  If there is a disruptive person that may jeopardize treatment for other people in the program, says Deutsch, the court could handle the situation.

Christie’s plan will be finished before the end of the 2012 fiscal year, ending on June 30, according to a spokesperson. If approved, it would roll out over the course of a few years.

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