The AP’s Sam Hananel has a nifty piece on Law.com today, called “Drug Courts Successful for Few Who Get In.” He sums up the situation fairly well. The short version is “drug court works, and with more funding it would work even more.”
A lot of crime is the result of drug addiction. Addicts deal drugs, rob, steal, burglarize and hurt people just to feed their addiction. Other crimes would never have happened but for that addiction. And addicts tend to keep committing these crimes over and over again. The damage to society is great, and the public cost of dealing with it is enormous.
So if we could somehow stop the addiction, the thinking goes, then we could prevent a large amount of future crimes and save ourselves a lot of resources. That’s where drug court comes in. If selected for drug court, addicts get treatment and counseling. And if they succeed, their case gets dismissed or reduced in the interests of justice.
That’s the carrot. There’s a stick, as well. Before entering the program, the offender has to take a plea. No judgment is entered, however. If the offender completes the program successfully, then they get their plea back. If they fail, however, then that plea can be enforced, and they face jail.
But a drug program that’s going to work is also going to be very hard to endure. Lots of offenders would rather just do the time, frankly. Because it’s not just about kicking the habit. Quitting is the easy part. Look at any population of inmates who can’t afford to maintain their drug habit while incarcerated, if you want to see “cold turkey” in action. The problem is, when they get out, they go right back into the same neighborhoods, with the same temptations, the same social pressures, and the same inability to just say “no.” They never rejoin lawful society.
So a decent drug program is going to hammer home, not only the ability to say “no” and keep pissing clean, but also the skills one needs to survive in law-abiding society. How to get a job, and keep it. How to take care of oneself, one’s family, and even put some savings aside. How to get that high school equivalency, or vocational certificate that can make all the difference in the world. It’s damn hard.
But it works. For those who graduate these programs, a mind-boggling 75% stay out of trouble. They’re cured. It worked.
Of course, a large reason why the success rates are so high is that candidates are cherry-picked by DA’s offices. Sources cited in the AP article complain about this selectivity, but in a world where the number of addicts vastly outweighs the resources available for treatment, it is hardly surprising that the government would focus its resources on those addicts most likely to respond to treatment. Accepting someone who’s probably going to fail is doubly unjust — it wastes tax dollars that could have helped another equally-needy addict, and it sets up the failer for the big stick punishment.
That big stick punishment is another complaint we’ve heard, and it pops up in the AP article, too. It’s not fair, they say, to require defendants to take a plea before they go into treatment. But these critics fail to recognize that it is a crucial part of the equation. Without the plea first, there is no incentive not to backslide. We’re talking about people who have already exercised poor judgment, poor impulse control, and a general tendency to take the easy way out. And again, this is a difficult process. Offering a risk-free escape route would set the whole system up for failure. It would be unjust, and a huge waste.
On top of that, the system would have to resuscitate each case one by one as people dropped out of the programs. DA’s offices would never be able to close a case, really. It would only increase their uncertainty and their workload. What possible incentive would they have to recommend our clients for treatment in such a situation? Time to be realistic, people.
So screw the naysayers. When we were narcotics prosecutors, we liked it. Now that we’re on the side of the angels, we love it. It makes a difference. It works. Keep both the carrot and the stick, if you want it to keep working. And if you want less cherry-picking, cough up more taxes so there are enough spots for all the good candidates, and then cough up some more to pay for the long shots.
In the meantime, let’s keep working to make it work.