Innovative But Imperfect Drug Courts Now Handle 70,000 Offenders


Drug courts are 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, reports the New York Times. 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. Nationwide, 70,000 offenders are in drug courts at any given time, with the number growing. 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.


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