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The Problems With Drug Courts

The alternative means of treatment for non-violent drug users and addicts is proving to be far superior to harsh prison terms.  Twenty years since its establishment, The Broward County drug court, like the successful one it’s modeled after in Miami-Dade County, has effectively realized these goals by diverting addicts to treatment rather than prison.  For a state like Florida, which bears the heavy financial burden of incarcerating a high number of non-violent drug offenders, drug courts may seem like the perfect solution.  However, a significant price accompanies the combination of treatment and the criminal justice system.

Certainly, drug courts are preferable to simply locking up addicts for mere possession and consumption of drugs, but they are not without their problems.  The nonprofit organization, Justice Policy Institute, recently released a study documenting some of the very problems associated with drug courts.  Even though these courts seek to steer addicts away from serving time in prison, the study shows these same courts encourage arrests by law enforcement, ensnaring more people into the criminal justice system than necessary.  Those suffering from the pitfalls of addiction should not have to wait to be arrested before receiving the help they need.  Unfortunately, these arrests often lead to felony convictions that remain on individuals’ records even if they are officially expunged.

Moreover, the difference in success rates for people referred to treatment by the criminal justice system versus community programs is negligible – 62% versus 60%, respectively.  Nor do drug courts significantly reduce recidivism rates when compared to community oriented treatment programs.  The rate of re-incarceration for those sent to treatment via drug courts was 4% compared to 1% by other means.  In fact, treatment within the community is far more cost effective – about ten times more so.  To crime victims and taxpayers, community treatment programs produce $21 in benefits per dollar spent, compared to less than $2 by drug courts.

This is not to say that drug courts don’t have a positive effect.  They undoubtedly help some break their addiction while reforming their criminal behavior.  Rather, it is important to acknowledge that better methods exist in providing treatment to addicts in a far more cost effective manner.  Treatment through drug courts still occurs within the scope of the criminal justice system, perpetuating the core, underlying problem with drug policy in America today – an overreliance on the use of the criminal justice system to treat a problem that is fundamentally a public health issue.


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