Fresh Look at Drug Courts Could Also Ease Prison Crisis

By Bobbie Stein, The Sacramento Bee

To many, releasing tens of thousands of inmates from California prisons might seem a radical solution to ease the serious overcrowding and dangerous conditions that have plagued the prisons for years, but a special panel of federal judges ordered the state to do just that. The judges said that no other solution will improve the poor conditions that have regularly led to inmate suicides and death from lack of proper care. The order to release prisoners comes as California struggles with a multibillion-dollar deficit that has forced the state to furlough employees, has forced courtroom closures one day a month and has caused drastic cuts in services across the board.

A retrospective look at how so many people landed in prison in the first place could help to alleviate the problem. Drug crimes represent a significant portion of all crimes committed in the United States and within California. In 2005, felony drug arrests represented 30 percent of all felony arrests in California. As a result, approximately 21 percent of inmates in California were in prison for drug-related crimes.

Astonishingly, someone is arrested in this country for drug possession or a related infraction every 18 seconds. According to the FBI's new Uniform Crime Report, in 2008 there were more than 1.7 million people arrested and more than 500,000 men and women in jail or prison for drug offenses. You don't have to be a radical to understand that a smarter approach to drug policy will go a long way toward both easing the prison population and saving money.

Although this year marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of drug courts in this country, we are still losing the "war on drugs." First started by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno when she was state's attorney for Miami-Dade County, this sane approach to mitigating the load of drug-related criminal cases that was crushing the system also provided for treatment for drug offenders rather than prison.

Drug courts are a political rarity in that most Democrats and Republicans actually agree that incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders neither makes good economic sense nor results in crime reduction. Indeed, President Barack Obama's new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has suggested a shift from incarceration toward treatment. But however well intentioned this shift away from the "war on drugs" rhetoric might be, on the whole, the existing drug courts have been ineffective in stemming drug abuse and reducing prison costs.

A recently completed two-year study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers identifies the many problems with existing programs and calls for standardization of drug court practices in these mostly ad hoc courts. Even within Northern California counties, there are differences in how drug defendants are treated. Some drug courts are little more than conviction mills where a defendant is required to plead guilty to the charge before being able to take advantage of treatment. If the defendant fails, they are left with a lifelong conviction and often a lengthy prison sentence.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recognizes drug addiction as the public health issue that it is and recommends a host of changes to existing drug programs. For instance, treatment should be freely available to every addicted person, not just those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the criminal justice system. The report advocates for all drug courts to be "pre-plea" where a defendant is not required to first plead guilty as a condition of much needed treatment.

The association of defense lawyers urges that admission criteria be objective and broad, and not categorically exclude all crimes of violence. Admission criteria need to be carefully created and reviewed to ensure that drug courts are open to all people regardless of race, economic or immigration status. Other recommendations deal with the allocation of funds for high-risk defendants and call for fair and effective alternatives for low-level offenders.

Although the idea behind drug courts is compassionate in theory, it's time to take a long, hard look at how we deal with drug offenders in reality. After 20 years of experimentation, it is time to get it right and move toward a more fair and effective model of treatment.