Overreliance on Drug Courts Comes at Too High a Cost

Report finds alternatives to drug courts can be more cost-effective and provide greater public safety benefits

WASHINGTON, DC – America’s growing reliance on drug courts is an ineffective allocation of scarce state resources, according to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). Drug courts can needlessly widen the net of criminal justice involvement, and cannot replace the need for improved treatment services in the community. Of the nearly 8 million people in the U.S. reporting needing treatment for drug use, less than one fourth of people classified with substance abuse or a dependence on drugs and/or alcohol receives treatment, and for those who do receive treatment, over 37 percent are referred by the criminal justice system.

Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities finds that providing people with alternatives like community-based treatment are more cost-effective and provide greater public safety benefits than treatment that comes with the collateral consequences associated with involvement in the criminal justice system.

“It is shameful that for many people involvement in the criminal justice system is the only way to access substance abuse treatment in this country,” said Nastassia Walsh, author of Addicted to Courts and Research Associate at JPI. “We need to change the way we think about drug use and the drug policies that bring so many people into the justice system.” Walsh added, “The dramatic increase in drug courts over the past 20 years may provide talking points for so-called ‘tough-on-crime’ policymakers; however, there are other, better options that can save money and support people and communities. More effective, community-based programs and services that can have a positive, lasting impact on individuals, families and communities should be made available.”

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has also published a report citing their concerns about drug courts and the need to provide better alternatives for people with addictions. Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward A Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use calls for a public health approach to substance abuse and for updating drug court policies to benefit more people. Both reports make an important case for a careful reconsideration of the growing prevalence of drug courts.

“Our country relies too heavily on courts and justice system-based solutions to social problems,” noted Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Instead, we should be investing in those community-based programs proven to have better public safety outcomes and that are more effective with taxpayer dollars. While a few programs truly divert people from incarceration, too many sweep people into the justice system unnecessarily. And we know that involvement in the justice system carries a huge price tag.”

Key recommendations from Addicted to Courts include:

Invest in front-end treatment and services. Providing treatment in the community before a person becomes involved in the criminal justice system can be an effective way to defeat a problem before it starts.

Implement “real” diversion policies and alternatives to incarceration. Largely as a result of increasing prison and jail populations, states and localities across the country created or are in the process of implementing diversion programs that keep people—mostly those convicted of low-level and drug offenses—out of jail and prison. These initiatives should be encouraged.

Collect better data on drug courts. National level data on drug court participation and success is hard to come by, making evaluations of the effectiveness of drug court difficult to measure. More data can lead to better evaluations and recommendations for best practices in drug court, and provide policymakers with information necessary to choose where to spend scarce funds.

Focus court treatment programs on those who would have gone to prison. If a person would have received a prison sentence, then a drug court program can act as a true diversion, saving the state money and protecting public safety through a more intensive period that includes both treatment and supervision.

Evaluate current drug court policies and practices. Drug court administrators should continuously evaluate policies on participant eligibility that may lead to “cherry picking” and practices that lead to higher failure rates for certain groups, especially those with lower income or people of color. More evaluation will lead to more fair and effective programs.

Both reports will be released to the public Tuesday, March 22 during two joint Capitol Hill briefings, “Drug Courts and the Portugal Model.” Spokespeople from both organizations will be available to press before and after the events.

House Briefing: Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2226 at 10 AM EST.
Senate Briefing: Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 562 at 3:30 PM EST.

To read the full report or the factsheet of Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes [office: (202) 558-7974 x 308, cell: (202) 320-1029, email: [email protected]] or Jason Fenster [office: (202)558-7974 x 306, cell: (202) 656-5336, email: [email protected]]. To learn about DPA’s report, Drug Courts Are Not the Answer, contact Tony Newman [(646) 335-5384, [email protected]].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more information, please visit www.justicepolicy.org.