Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Over the last three years, she had repeatedly missed court-ordered therapy and hearings, and the judge, J. Wesley Saint Clair of the Drug Diversion Court, at first meted out mild punishments, like community service. But last winter, pushed past his forgiving limit, he jailed her briefly twice. The threat of more jail did the trick.
Now she was graduating — along with 23 other addicts who entered drug court instead of prison. Prosecutors and public defenders applauded when she was handed her certificate; a policewoman hugged her, and a child shouted triumphantly, “Yeah, Mamma!”
In Seattle, as in drug courts across the country, the stern face of criminal justice is being redrawn, and emotions are often on the surface. Experts say drug courts have been the country’s fastest-spreading innovation in criminal justice, giving arrested addicts a chance to avoid prison by agreeing to stringent oversight and addiction treatment. Recent studies show drug courts are one of the few initiatives that reduce recidivism — on average by 8 percent to 10 percent nationally and as high as 26 percent in New York State — and save taxpayer money.
Since Judge Saint Clair took over the King County drug court here in 2005, the annual number of graduates — drug and alcohol free for at least six months — has more than doubled. His court has been cited by outside experts as one of the country’s best, yet a state budget crisis is forcing a shrinkage in participants.
Since the first drug court began work, in Miami in 1989, the idea has spread to more than 2,100 courtrooms in every state, though they still take in only a small fraction of addicted criminals. Offenders, usually caught in low-level dealing or stealing to support their addictions, volunteer for 9 to 18 months or more of intrusive supervision by a judge, including random urine testing, group therapy and mandatory sobriety meetings. The intent is a personal transformation that many participants say is tougher than prison — and with the threat of prison if they drop out or are kicked out.
“I’ve waited 22 months for this day, and I never thought I’d make it,” Scott Elkins, a 26-year-old hip-hop singer, told the Seattle audience in September. A cocaine user and dealer who had been clean for two years, Mr. Elkins had his felony charges dropped and has a job, his own music production company and marriage plans.
Nationwide, 70,000 offenders are in adult or juvenile drug courts at any given time, with the number growing, said C. West Huddleston III, director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The concept has been supported by the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“To find an intervention that works has generated great excitement in the criminal justice community,” said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a research group in New York, where Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has been a strong advocate.
But some scholars say that, because of high up-front costs, the limited success of drug treatment and a shortage of judges with the required personal talents, drug courts are unlikely to make a significant dent in the prison population.
Some lawyers also say the courts can infringe on the rights of defendants given that offenders usually must acknowledge guilt to enter the court, or in some places have already agreed to a plea bargain and sentence. Thus an addict might opt for drug court to avoid prison or with sincere intentions of going straight, but if treatment fails and he is expelled from the program, he must serve a sentence without having seriously fought the charges. His total time in court custody, between drug court and then prison, may be longer than it would have been otherwise. Advocates respond that such offenders are facing a plea-bargaining mill in any case, and are offered an invaluable chance for change.
Critics also worry that the courts can monopolize scarce drug-treatment slots at the expense of other addicts seeking help.
Clearly, the courts do not help everyone. One of the most successful programs is in New York State, where about 1,600 offenders are in adult drug courts. Studies found that while 40 percent dropped out of the program along the way, those who started it, including both dropouts and graduates, had 29 percent fewer new convictions over a three-year period than a control group with similar criminal histories and no contact with drug courts, Mr. Berman said.
Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]