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October 15, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)

Courts Give Addicts a Chance to Straighten Out

By Erik Eckholm

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


SEATTLE -- It was not your usual courtroom scene. For one thing, the judge choked up as he described one woman's struggle with opiate addiction after her arrest for forging prescriptions.

Over the last three years, she had repeatedly missed court-ordered therapy and hearings, and the judge, J. Wesley Saint Clair of the Drug Diversion Court, at first meted out mild punishments, like community service. But last winter, pushed past his forgiving limit, he jailed her briefly twice. The threat of more jail did the trick.

Now she was graduating -- along with 23 other addicts who entered drug court instead of prison. Prosecutors and public defenders applauded when she was handed her certificate; a policewoman hugged her, and a child shouted triumphantly, "Yeah, Mamma!"

In Seattle, as in drug courts across the country, the stern face of criminal justice is being redrawn, and emotions are often on the surface. Experts say drug courts have been the country's fastest-spreading innovation in criminal justice, giving arrested addicts a chance to avoid prison by agreeing to stringent oversight and addiction treatment. Recent studies show drug courts are one of the few initiatives that reduce recidivism -- on average by 8 percent to 10 percent nationally and as high as 26 percent in New York State -- and save taxpayer money.

Since Judge Saint Clair took over the King County drug court here in 2005, the annual number of graduates -- drug and alcohol free for at least six months -- has more than doubled. His court has been cited by outside experts as one of the country's best, yet a state budget crisis is forcing a shrinkage in participants.

Since the first drug court began work, in Miami in 1989, the idea has spread to more than 2,100 courtrooms in every state, though they still take in only a small fraction of addicted criminals. Offenders, usually caught in low-level dealing or stealing to support their addictions, volunteer for 9 to 18 months or more of intrusive supervision by a judge, including random urine testing, group therapy and mandatory sobriety meetings. The intent is a personal transformation that many participants say is tougher than prison -- and with the threat of prison if they drop out or are kicked out.

"I've waited 22 months for this day, and I never thought I'd make it," Scott Elkins, a 26-year-old hip-hop singer, told the Seattle audience in September. A cocaine user and dealer who had been clean for two years, Mr. Elkins had his felony charges dropped and has a job, his own music production company and marriage plans.

Nationwide, 70,000 offenders are in adult or juvenile drug courts at any given time, with the number growing, said C. West Huddleston III, director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The concept has been supported by the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"To find an intervention that works has generated great excitement in the criminal justice community," said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a research group in New York, where Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has been a strong advocate.

But some scholars say that, because of high up-front costs, the limited success of drug treatment and a shortage of judges with the required personal talents, drug courts are unlikely to make a significant dent in the prison population.

Some lawyers also say the courts can infringe on the rights of defendants given that offenders usually must acknowledge guilt to enter the court, or in some places have already agreed to a plea bargain and sentence. Thus an addict might opt for drug court to avoid prison or with sincere intentions of going straight, but if treatment fails and he is expelled from the program, he must serve a sentence without having seriously fought the charges. His total time in court custody, between drug court and then prison, may be longer than it would have been otherwise. Advocates respond that such offenders are facing a plea-bargaining mill in any case, and are offered an invaluable chance for change.

Critics also worry that the courts can monopolize scarce drug-treatment slots at the expense of other addicts seeking help.

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.

Still, several drug-court graduates in Seattle and Olympia, Wash., said the supervision of a judge, ready to praise or jail them depending on performance, was crucial to their success.

Allison Alexander, 26, had parents who were heroin addicts, and she had lived on the streets since age 14, using and selling methamphetamine.

"I couldn't have stopped on my own; I didn't know how," said Ms. Alexander, holding her 16-month-old daughter on graduation day.

"Drug court saved my life," she told the audience, tears welling up in the eyes of her grandparents and even the prosecutor, and she said she aims for a career in child counseling.

The Seattle court handles about 500 offenders at a time, though state budget cuts will reduce the number to 300 next year. Judge Saint Clair, an animated 57-year-old, said this would cost society more in the long run. He also tried to dispel the notion that drug courts were a free ride.

"Drug courts work, and not because they're fuzzy -- let me tell you, I can be a hard man to deal with," Judge Saint Clair said to the graduates, their families and friends. "For many of you, it would have been easier just to have taken your prison time."

In Seattle, most of the offenders are addicted to cocaine, heroin or prescription narcotics. Researchers have not established whether the courts are more effective with one type of drug user or another.

But more than two-thirds of the clients in Thurston County, Wash., south of Seattle, are methamphetamine users. The court there in Olympia is led by Judge Richard A. Strophy, who was recently considering the case of Pepper Johnston, 26, who had lost custody of her baby girl during the three years she was, in her words, "strung out." Now doing well after nine months in the program, Ms. Johnston meets her daughter after school and dreams of regaining custody.

But the judge told another woman who has missed therapy and urine tests that he might remove her from the program, and had her handcuffed and taken to jail until he decided.

"With meth addicts, who are paranoid and oppositional, you've got to force them to change," Judge Strophy said. "Coerced treatment works."

Offenders are referred to drug court by prosecutors but participation is voluntary, and some decline because they prefer brief sentences to a year or two under the thumb of a judge, with no guarantee that they will not fail and serve prison time anyway.

At a regular session of the Seattle court, Jenifer Paris, 36, sounded hopeful. She was six months clean, she said, after 22 years of heroin and cocaine use and stretches of homelessness and prostitution. She is in a methadone maintenance program -- acceptable to many drug courts -- and in therapy.

"You guys are the first people to believe in me," Ms. Paris said.

"I'm full of gratitude for the opportunity and for you not kicking me out," she said, eyes sweeping from Judge Saint Clair to the prosecutor and her public defender.

"We're not done yet," Judge Saint Clair replied with a hint of a smile.

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