Drug Courts Are Not the Answer

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli
Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

drug-courtWhile drug courts have helped many Americans, they are not an appropriate response to drug law violations nor are they the most effective or cost-effective way to provide treatment to people whose only “crime” is their addiction.

At two recent Capitol Hill briefings in Washington, D.C., the Drug Policy Alliance released a report on drug courts—programs that seek to reduce drug use through mandated treatment and close judicial oversight. Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use finds that, while such courts have helped many people, they are not an appropriate response to drug law violations nor are they the most effective or cost-effective way to provide treatment to people whose only “crime” is their addiction.

The Justice Policy Institute also issued its own report at the briefings: Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities. Both reports seek to provide a critical perspective that has been missing from the policy discussion on drug courts and to foster a more informed public debate, especially as more elected officials, all the way up to President Obama, reveal a lack of understanding of the real impacts of drug courts.

We have certainly stirred things up! Within 24 hours of the reports’ release, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) issued a statement [pdf] that underscores little tolerance for critique. It seems that at least some drug court proponents have come to believe that this particular policy approach should be protected from criticism. View our response to NADCP [pdf].

Rather than take a “pro” or “con” position, we’d prefer a discussion about how best to address drug use and how best to apply (and improve) the various court-based programs that go by the “drug court” moniker.

What’s absolutely critical is to understand that drug courts, though they often connect people with treatment services, are not a public health approach to drug use. They exist within a criminal justice system that demands punishment of individuals for a health issue.

Incarcerating people for a relapse—a predictable and normal part of drug treatment—flies in the face of public health principles. Denying opioid-dependent individuals access to what might be the most effective treatment for them, narcotic replacement therapies including methadone and buprenorphine, and then incarcerating them for failing to do well is unconscionable. Most drug courts are guilty of both.

For people convicted of a drug law violation, other policy responses should be available—whether probation, drug treatment or both—because research shows they are at least equally effective and less costly and because public health principles demand a health response, not a criminal justice one, to drug use absent harm or serious risk of harm (such as driving under the influence) to others. We also urge drug courts to focus their resources on cases involving offenses against person or property that are linked to a drug problem and to strive to provide better treatment options for participants.

The key message we hope policy makers will take away from our report is that drug courts are often not the best way to provide treatment, and they can in fact produce negative outcomes if not appropriately applied. U.S. drug policy must continue to move toward a public health approach to drug use. That’s how we can do the most good for the most people at the most affordable cost.

The fact that 1.4 million Americans are arrested every year for possession of drugs for personal use is a problem that will not be solved by drug courts.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is Deputy State Director, Southern California, for the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to end the "war on drugs." She is a contributor to the DPA new report "Drug Courts Are Not the Answer." The Drug Policy Alliance and Justice Policy Institute are grantees of the Open Society Foundations. This blog was published originally in the Open Society blog.