Ben Withers, 42, tried marijuana at age 9 and later moved to heroin, crack cocaine and more as Withers grew older. He was arrested last March, the Cleveland Plain Dealer says, when police caught him leaving a drug house with four rocks of crack cocaine in his pocket. Withers enrolled in Cleveland’s Drug Court, which offers addicts a chance to get sober in exchange for expunged criminals records. He celebrated 10 months of sobriety a few weeks ago at a ceremony. He has a job managing apartments and plans to buy a three-year-old pick-up truck.
For nearly a year, the people at Drug Court – judges, police, administrators and parole officers – have been scrambling to stay in operation. A recent $1.2 million federal grant will allow it to increase its case load by 60 percent. The court will pay for a study by the University of Akron to assess its effectiveness.
The Drug Court, open to low-level, first-time offenders and some second-time offenders, has drawn praise from all sides of the justice system including defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, police and drug-treatment counselors. Every year up to 3,000 of the 16,000 people indicted in Cuyahoga County are eligible for Drug Court. But the court can pay for only about 70 cases annually. Cleveland’s is one of 37 drug courts in Ohio and 547 nationally. The courts’ successes were part of the inspiration behind last year’s failed statewide ballot initiative that would have required first-time drug offenders to go through such programs rather than to prison.
Critics say that the courts’ long-term benefits are uncertain. Defendants may be enticed to try the program believing it beats jail time and then return to their old ways after graduating, said Eric Sterling of the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Drug courts may also weaken the legal process by coercing defendants to plead guilty to charges that prosecutors might not be able to prove, Denver Judge Morris Hoffman wrote in a law journal.
One study of 95 Cleveland graduates three years ago found less than 12 percent had been re-arrested for felony drug crimes. That’s a recidivism rate some 10 percent to 30 percent lower than the national average, statistics show. The federal grant should help answer critics’ questions about effectiveness by doing a more in-depth, longer-term study.