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Drug Courts

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There is no doubt that the United States suffers from an increase in crime and more people than ever being incarcerated. The numbers are currently overwhelming. “A nonpartisan organization called The Pew Center on the States, released a study February 2008 that found the U.S. imprisoned both more people and a larger percentage of its adult population than any other country. According to the study, by The Pew Center 2.32 million people were currently incarcerated in the U.S., more than 1% of the total adult population of about 230 million. That number included 1.6 million people held in state and federal prisons, an increase of 25,000 over the previous year, as well as 723,000 people held in local jails.”

The study also goes on to say that “the number of people behind bars in the United States continued to climb, saddling cash strapped states with soaring costs they can ill-afford and failing to have a clear impact on recidivism or overall crime.” It also suggested that, “while increased imprisonment reduced the overall crime rate, factors including lowering unemployment rates and increasing the number of police officers employed in a given area appeared to have an equal or greater effect on crime.” The numbers speak for themselves. The United States must do something to control the growing problem. (Prison Overcrowding Follow-up More than 1% of Population Imprisoned Feb. 2008)

The government is currently trying to get a handle on the problem, “with many lawmakers describing the overcrowding as a “time bomb” that threatens to explode if immediate action is not taken to relieve it.” (Prison Overcrowding Jan. 2004) The “get tough” approach of the past decades is no longer working for non-violent offenders and those who have gone to a life of crime to support substance abuse problems. Since 1906 the government has tried to control narcotics, by making tougher penalties for those who misuse them. “As states grapple with the crisis while having to cope with fiscal constraints due to an economic slowdown, a larger debate has emerged over the role of prisons in society. Does incarceration rehabilitate prisoners?”

Many prisons are so overcrowded that “they are forced to put two inmates in cells designed for one to meet demands for bed space. In Arizona, overcrowding has meant that some inmates must sleep in tents on prison grounds. Observers have noted that the current extent of overcrowding is a threat to the quality of life of prison employees as well as to the prisoners themselves.” (Prison Overcrowding Jan. 2004) Prison cannot be called the good life that is for sure. If opportunities were given to the non-violent offenders that would keep them motivated while incarcerated, or keep them from ever entering the prison system it would create more money and opportunities for other programs.

The judicial system has gone to alternatives to imprisonment in an effort to rehabilitate offenders and lower the numbers of prisoners. Drug courts were developed in an effort to help that process. “In 1970, the controlled substances act was signed, outlawing a gamut of addictive drugs and instituting mandatory minimum sentences for offenders.” Later to be followed by, “the 1984 signing of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, implemented by President Reagan. Expanding the scope of Federal authority in drug investigations and intensifying penalties for drug offenders.” By the late 1980’s a group of judges in Miami, Florida frustrated with the direction of drug policy, instituted the first drug court. “The Miami court allowed offenders to avoid jail time by completing a rigorous drug treatment regimen. Miami courts worked to gain some financial assistance to keep the program available to its offenders, “in 1994 the justice department was authorized to give financial grants to jurisdictions establishing drug courts.” (Key Events in the History of Drug Courts Feb. 2004) That was just the thing needed for other states across the nation to see the potential that drug courts had to offer. Miami helped pave the way for other states throughout the United States to get funding for the drug court program.

The program showed some light at the end of the long tunnel of alternatives to imprisonment. The drug court program is definitely not a traditional court program. It is designed to help rehabilitate non-violent offenders in an effort to keep them from returning to the prison system. “Since the first drug court was established in 1989, they have exploded in popularity among observers and participants, the criminal justice system. There are currently 697 drug courts throughout all 50 states. And since 1994, when the justice Department started giving grants, the Federal Government handed out over $5 million in drug court grants.”

Many people think that the drug court program is a huge step in the right direction for the judicial system. “Incarcerating drug offenders accomplishes little good, and actually reinforces criminal behavior, proponents argue. Since drug courts users are, in general, more likely to be arrested for crimes related to their drug use, proponents assert, forcing offenders into intensive treatment programs addresses the root of their criminal behavior. In addition to benefiting those defendants, supporters argue, drug courts save society the huge costs associated with crimes and relieve the strain on the criminal justice system. (Drug Courts Feb. 2002) That creates less strain on an already overcrowded prison system.

Different states throughout the country have embraced the drug court program. All of which follow the same basic rules, stay clean, finish treatment, and at the end of the program charges are dismissed against the offender. California is one state that implemented the system with help from Proposition 36. “In 2000 California voters passed a state ballot initiative mandating that first- and second-time nonviolent offenders be placed in treatment programs, not prison.” (California Chooses Treatment over Punishment for Drug Users Feb. 2002) “Supporters of the law argue that it disposes of an out of date assumption of U.S. drug policy: that drug users are criminals who should be dealt with harshly. Most drug users are not crazy serial killers, they are our neighbors, co-workers, and childhood friends that never grew up after college, or who developed a problem with pain killers following a back surgery. ‘This shows that we can draw distinctions between real criminals or real crime and violent crime and drug users,’ says Dave Fratello, a spokesman for Yes on 36, ‘it also punctures the conventional wisdom among politicians that what voters want is an across the board zero tolerance drug policy.” (California Chooses treatment over Punishment for Drug Users Feb. 2002)

Proposition 36, which took effect in July 2001, was set to expire in 5 ½ years, its successes and failures paved the road for drug policy throughout the U.S. There must have been something to Proposition 36 because the government allocated $120 million in funds to support the drug court program, and the program has grown in numbers even reaching into Indiana. Currently there are 22 adult programs and 4 juvenile programs in Indiana. Some counties in Indiana that currently offer the drug court program include, Howard County, Madison County, Tippecanoe County, and Lawrence County. (La Bastide)

There is even a drug court locally here in Bloomington to which I recently visited to get an idea of what the “real deal” actually is. The Monroe County Program goals are as follows: to provide a fully integrated and comprehensive treatment program, to provide graduated levels of sanctions to defendants who are not in compliance with the program, to facilitate the acquisition or enhancement of academic, vocational, and pro-social skills, to reduce incarceration for defendants with serious substance abuse issues, and to reduce criminal justice costs, over the long run, by reducing drug addiction and street crime. The program is not designed to let the offender off “scott free” but one that holds the defendant accountable and teaches a life lesson.

The local program in Monroe County is a 2 year program for those who choose to stay drug and alcohol free, commit to a treatment program provided by local treatment facilities and, actively participate in either Narcotics Anonymous and or Alcoholics Anonymous. The participants are asked to submit to random urine screens, daily breathalyzers, weekly trips to court, and paying all treatment and court costs. As well as, keeping steady employment and permanent housing. Any and all changes must be reported immediately to the drug court “team” and at any time the defendants home may be searched. It is quite a commitment, but for those serious about the program it has saved them from a life of drug abuse and helped broken families mend. The “support system” that is offered by those participants and coordinators of the drug court program has is one of honesty and sobriety. If a defendant can not comply with the requirements they are placed in jail and all drug court privileges are revoked, the defendants pending charge(s) will be reinstated, as well as any new charge. From that time on the law will be followed and prosecution to the fullest could be sought.

Not all people in the judicial system are supporters of the drug court program, and some supporters have their reservations. “The findings by MGT of America were primarily that drug court funding should be trimmed and that the courts are not helping reduce the prison populations. Those statements no doubt got the attention of those who implemented the program, as well as legislators who may be looking to siphon off a few dollars for their own pet projects.” (Drug Courts: Program Due Study, not elimination Jan. 2008) Even some of the counties in Indiana have skeptics, some cuts in Federal grants are making it harder for Madison County to stay in operation.

Tippecanoe County has stated that since May of 2003 to October 2006, “only nine people have graduated from the program, with four people withdrawing from the program.” With the program designed to rehabilitate offenders and keep the jail populations down, Madison County says the program is not helping to keep the numbers of its jails down. Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings states, “the success of the Drug Court depends on how success is measured, adding it is a worthwhile program. It is not fair to measure the drug court by the failures, but by the successes. If one person is helped off an addiction it is worthwhile.” (La Bastide)

The Opposition to Proposition 36 has said, “The program relies on treatment methods that have proven ineffective. Under this law, all you do is answer to a probation officer who has no power except to put you into another program if you fail at the one that you are already in.” (California Chooses Treatment over Punishment for Drug Users, Feb. 2002) Many opponents of the law lament that it backs away from coercive treatment, the method favored in drug courts. Typically, drug courts outline rigorous treatment programs for offenders, and punish failure to comply with limited sanctions, like short jail stays. ‘There has to be an element of coercion to change addictive behavior,’ says San Maeto County Chief Probation Officer Loren Buddres. (California Chooses Treatment over Punishment for Drug Users Feb. 2002) Those that oppose simply say that the evidence that claims the program to be a success is misleading, that not enough fact based evidence has been proven to show the successes of the program.

No matter what the lawmakers of our country choose to do about our ever growing prison population the inevitable will always be. People are going to break the law, some are going to deserve to go to prison, some will not. The question is how do we as a country decide to rehabilitate those who keep going back to prison and those who are just drug addicts supporting a habit? And if even a small part of society believes that every drug addict needs to be sent to prison, is there ever going to be a way to fix the disease of addiction? The willingness to change must be there for the offender in any situation. A person cannot be rehabilitated if they do not believe that they have a problem in the first place. Once the offender can admit the error in their ways, and show some genuine desire to better themselves, drug courts can help them. The disease of addiction is one without a cure. However it can be treated, the right to do so should be an option for any man, woman or child that suffers from this terrible disease.

Works Cited

“Key Events in the History of Drug Courts.” Issues and Controversies on File 15 Feb. 2002. Issues and Controversies. Facts on File News Services. 21 Apr. 2009

“Prison Overcrowding.” Issues and Controversies on File 16 Jan. 2004 Issues and Controversies. Facts on File News Services. 21 Apr. 2009

“Prison Overcrowding Follow-Up; More than 1% of U.S. Population Imprisoned.” Issues and Controversies on File 28 Feb. 2008.
Issues and Controversies. Facts on File News Services. 21 Apr. 2009

“Drug Courts.” Issues and Controversies on File 15 Feb. 2002. Issues and Controversies. Facts on File News Services. 21 Apr. 2009

“California Chooses Treatment over Punishment for Drug Users.” Issues and Controversies on File 15 Feb. 2002 Issues and Controversies. Facts on File News Services. 21 Apr. 2009

Oklahomian, Daily. Drug Courts: Program Due Study, Not Elimination. 20 Jan. 2008.

La Bastide, Ken De. “Statewide Drug Courts are Struggling.” Kokomo Tribune (10-23-2006). Oklahomian, Daily. Drug Courts: Program Due Study, Not Elimination. 20 Jan. 2008.

information.html, www.co.monroe.in.us/probation/drugcourt. Monroe County Drug Court Information. Bloomington, IN, 21 Apr. 2009. La Bastide, Ken De. “Statewide Drug Courts are Struggling.” Kokomo Tribune (10-23-2006). Oklahomian, Daily. Drug Courts: Program Due Study, Not Elimination. 20 Jan. 2008.

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