More sentencing sense

I mentioned drug courts in a recent post. Well, the NY Times is reporting on drug courts.


Clearly, the courts do not help everyone. One of the most successful programs is in New York State, where about 1,600 offenders are in adult drug courts. Studies found that while 40 percent dropped out of the program along the way, those who started it, including both dropouts and graduates, had 29 percent fewer new convictions over a three-year period than a control group with similar criminal histories and no contact with drug courts, Mr. Berman said.

In other regions, half or more of those who start the program do not finish. And recidivism rates for participants are reduced by about 10 percent to 20 percent, depending upon the quality of the judges and treatment programs, said John Roman, a researcher at the Urban Institute, based on a recent study.

An earlier review of 57 “rigorous” drug court evaluations around the country, led by Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, found that recidivism was reduced on average by only 8 percent, but with wide variation.

Yet even that modest reduction in crimes and prison yields cost benefits. The report this year by the Urban Institute found that, for 55,000 people in adult drug courts, the country spends about half a billion dollars a year in supervision and treatment but reaps more than $1 billion in reduced law enforcement, prison and victim costs. A large expansion would yield similar benefits, the report argued.

But some scholars, like Mark A. R. Kleiman, director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, remain skeptical about the potential and the achievements. He suggests, for example, that success rates of some courts may be inflated because they take in offenders who are not addicted and entered this track only to avoid prison. Dr. Kleiman advocates a slimmed-down system that does not initially require costly treatment, as drug courts do, but simply demands that offenders stop using drugs, with the penalty of short stays in jail when they fail urine tests. Such an approach has shown promise with methamphetamine users in Hawaii, he said, and because it is far cheaper, it can be applied to far more offenders.

I’d like Kleiman’s proposal if what he describes is a “pre-drug court” that would step addicts up into a full drug court.

There’s something exciting and troubling about drug courts and health professional recovery programs in the context of the addiction treatment system. Exciting because there are important ways that they are succeeding in implementing some chronic disease management elements, namely long term monitoring and swift reintervention when relapse happens or appears imminent. Troubling because it seems that we are only implementing these strategies with involuntary involuntary clients and other systems are the ones implementing these programs for their own ends. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, it’s great that these systems are approaching these problems in this way. But it should be cause for concern that these other systems are pulling us in this direction rather than us leading the way.) These programs get to be considerably more directive with these patients–they HAVE to go to treatment, they HAVE to get regular drug testing, they HAVE to attend recovery support groups, etc.
There will be a whole new set of challenges with voluntary clients. I suppose we’ll face the same challenges that cardiac care and diabetes programs face every day.