Village Life Cover Story

Drug Courts Punish
And Treat Offenders

By Paul Bush
American News Service

By the time Tanya was 29, her crack habit had reached $500 a day.

Tanya, who asked that her full name not be used, had lost custody of her children. But that didn't stop her. She had been arrested 11 times for prostitution and loitering. That didn't stop her either.

In fact, jail got her ready for more drug use. "When I was smoking cocaine, I'd be up for three days or more. Jail would give you time to sleep it off," Tanya said. "That's generally what drug addicts do," she said. "By the time you get out, you're ready to start using again."

Repeat offenders like Tanya are a common sight in U.S. courts, where statistics show the majority of people on trial were under the influence of drugs at the time of their arrest. They return to court and to more jail time because of their drug abuse, a fact obvious to many judges.

Out of frustration, a few judges created a solution that is beginning to catch on around the country. They set up intensive programs known as drug courts, that do what most courts can't -- provide regular supervision and almost immediate punishment, as well as positive reinforcement for staying clean and sober.

Drug courts involve a year long program that requires offenders to appear in court almost every week. The judge receives a progress report drawn up by drug counselors, probation officers and others. The judge also gets the results of urinalysis tests that are done twice weekly or more.

Failing a drug test or missing a court-ordered meeting results in immediate punishment. This combination of immediate sanctions and intense supervision distinguishes drug courts from the traditional system.

Drug courts are proliferating. In 1994 there were approximately 12 such programs in the country. This year, 318 are functioning or in the planning stage, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, based in Alexandria, Va. New York has started setting up drug treatment courts within the Family Court system because most child abuse cases involve defendants who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Tanya is a successful graduate of the Drug Treatment Court in Rochester, N.Y. She is on the dean's list at the local community college, she has custody of her children once again, and she and her new husband have just had a drug-free baby -- saving an estimated $250,000 in medical and social services required by each drug-addicted baby.

By almost every standard, drug courts are successful, according to the drug court professionals' group. The recidivism rate for the roughly 28,000 people who have graduated is less than 4 percent, or fewer than 1,200. Among an equal number of regular court offenders, the recidivism rate would be over 13,000.

"The differences are so great that some people are concerned that they're cooking the numbers," said psychiatrist Michael Smith, who for 22 years has run the drug treatment program at Lincoln Hospital in New York City's South Bronx. Smith has also been a consultant to drug courts since the first one was started in 1989 in Miami.

Success rates around the country have been uniformly high. Of those who participate in drug courts, between 70 and 90 percent complete the program.

In contrast, Smith said, "I haven't heard of a residential treatment program that claimed a graduation rate greater than 30 percent."

Serving time in jail is even less effective in stopping drug abuse. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, fewer than 20 percent of all prisoners receive drug treatment. In fact, said Smith, "Jail introduces you to a lot of dealers, and there's evidence it encourages you to use the day you get out."

Many court officers say criminal courts are overcrowded, operate slowly and communicate poorly with probation officers and drug treatment centers. "Our legal system has been way outdated," said Nadine Spinell, administrator of the Rochester Drug Treatment Court.

Conventionally drug abusers may violate probation, a frequent sentence for the petty offenses they commit, only to have months elapse before they appear in court again. "After the precipitating event you can be talking a year," Spinell said.

Not in Rochester, though. "Here, you're arrested, you're arraigned and you're in drug court in a week," Spinell said.

In another innovation, Pensacola, Fla., has a "dependency" drug court to deal with parents who, while they have not been arrested for drug abuse, have had their children taken away by child welfare authorities because of drug abuse.

Judge John Parnham, who oversees the dependency court, cites the cases of two program graduates who had been homeless and through three or four previous treatment programs. "Both have been reunited with their families and have been clean and sober for 10 months. Both have a home and a brighter future," he said.

Statistics show that the majority of people arrested in the United States are under the influence of one or more drugs at the time of their arrest. This is true of 65 percent of men and 57 percent of women, according to a recent Drug Court Clearinghouse report. Among the nation's prison population, 60 percent of inmates have a drug abuse problem.

The state of Oklahoma faces drug abuse rates that are higher than the national average. JoAnn Bronstad, state drug court coordinator said, "Of those arrested, 82 to 92 percent are using a substance at the time of arrest." Additionally, said Bronstad, "We're the largest worldwide in incarcerating female drug abusers."

Yet a drug court operating in Tulsa, Okla., for the last year has achieved a 92 percent success rate, as measured by the number of graduates who remain drug-free. The court is in session three mornings a week and currently has 72 participants, whose crimes range from drug possession to writing fraudulent prescriptions.

The savings are significant. Jailing someone for a year costs between $18,000 and $25,000 -- the equivalent of a year at Harvard, as one drug court advocate put it. Drug court treatment programs cost between $2,000 and $3,000, according to the national association. The expenses for court personnel come from existing budgets.

In Oklahoma, drug court participants have to pay for their own drug treatment. It's considered an added incentive to do well. Low-income participants pay on a sliding scale.

In Oakland, Calif., where Judge Jeff Tauber started a drug court in 1990, the savings actually became income. "Because people were spending so much less time in custody, we were able to rent out jail space to the federal government and to the county," he said.

Tauber is now president of the 2,000-member National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which brings together judges, district attorneys, drug treatment providers and others. On May 15 and 16 the organization's annual conference drew 1,500 participants, who heard White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey declare their efforts a success. "Drug courts work," said McCaffrey. "All the numbers are convincing."

Posted on June 5, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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