Should Drug Courts Expand in the Federal System?

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The federal court system has long had a reputation for hard-line drug policies, handing down mandatory sentences that send even low-level offenders to prison for years. Drug courts, specialized diversion programs that let eligible nonviolent defendants avoid incarceration if they undergo treatment, have become increasingly prevalent at the state level. They remain unusual in the federal system, found in fewer than one in four judicial districts, the Boston Globe reports. The Trump administration’s opioid commission wants that to change, calling for drug courts to be extended nationwide as “a proven avenue to treatment for individuals who commit nonviolent crimes because of their SUD [substance use disorder].”

Supporters say drug courts are a compassionate, practical response to addiction-fueled crime and a revolving prison door. The experience in Massachusetts, where participants in drug courts often have been sent to jail for days, weeks, and even months if they relapse or are kicked out of treatment programs, has given rise to skepticism about expanding the approach on the federal level. Offenders are required to remain sober as a condition of the program. Critics say incarcerating participants who relapse defeats the purpose of the program and violates national standards for drug courts, which recommend jail only when participants pose a threat to public safety or when all other measures have failed. “What matters is what sort of care people are getting,” said Sarah Wakeman of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital. “If people . . . are sent to prison because they continue to use substances, that’s not effective treatment.” Treatment specialists also cautioned that any expansion of federal drug courts must include oversight to ensure that defendants are being treated consistently and being sent to effective, well-run treatment programs.

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