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SAMHSA News - March/April, Volume 14, Number 2

Incarceration vs. Treatment: Drug Courts Help Substance Abusing Offenders (Part 1)

In many courtrooms, judges see the same defendants so often they're practically on a first-name basis. Whether the charges are breaking and entering, driving under the influence, neglecting a child, or some other offense, the underlying cause is often the same: alcohol or drug abuse.

SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) is helping to stop these revolving doors. Since the late 1990s, CSAT has provided funding to support treatment drug courts—often referred to simply as drug courts—that offer offenders access to alcohol or substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration. Today, CSAT's criminal and juvenile justice portfolio funds 62 drug courts, helping adult offenders, juvenile offenders, and parents at risk of losing custody of their children break the cycle of substance abuse, crime, and prison time.

"Providing alcohol and drug abuse treatment instead of jail is one of the surest ways to put drug-dependent adults on the path to recovery and to prevent juveniles with drug problems from becoming adult criminals," said SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W.

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An Effective Alternative

The first drug courts were a response to a system in crisis, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).

In the late 1980s, substance-abusing nonviolent offenders were overwhelming the criminal justice system. These offenders would receive their sentences, serve their time, and be released—only to start this expensive, time-consuming cycle all over again.

"Judges and prosecutors were fed up with seeing the same drug- and alcohol-dependent people appear before the court over and over and over again," explained C. West Huddleston III, L.P.C., Director of the National Drug Court Institute (NDCI), the association's education, research, and scholarship arm. "They recognized that their traditional responses, whether it was jail, prison, or a probationary sentence, weren't solving the underlying problem. Dependency was the driving force behind their criminal behavior."

Drug courts break the cycle by ensuring that offenders receive substance abuse treatment, which addresses the root cause of their crimes. Instead of sending offenders to jail or prison, judges send them to treatment. Close supervision, drug testing, and the use of sanctions and incentives help ensure that offenders stick with their treatment plan.

That approach really works, said Mr. Huddleston, noting that national, statewide, and local evaluations demonstrate the efficacy of drug courts.

In a 2005 report to Congress, for example, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the evidence about adult drug courts and found that participants had lower rates of re-arrest and re-conviction than comparison groups.

Mr. Huddleston also points to a 2003 study by the Center for Court Innovation, which analyzed the re-conviction rate of participants in New York's drug court system. The study found that the re-conviction rate for 2,135 defendants participating in six of the state's drug courts was 29 percent lower on average over 3 years than the re-conviction rate for similar offenders who didn't participate in drug courts.

That kind of evidence has spurred the growth of drug courts. According to NADCP, there are now 1,753 drug courts of various types in operation, with 212 in the planning stages.

The evidence has also prompted CSAT's continuing commitment to supporting this innovative alternative.

"SAMHSA's vision is a life in the community for everyone," said Kenneth W. Robertson, Team Leader for Targeted Capacity Expansion and Criminal Justice Programs at CSAT. "That includes criminal offenders."

To fulfill that vision, CSAT funds adult treatment drug courts, juvenile treatment drug courts, and family treatment drug courts. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) also funds drug courts through its Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. CSAT and DOJ work together to better coordinate drug court funding and provide training. A support contract provides training to CSAT grantees. With funding from DOJ, NDCI helps grantees and any other drug court that needs assistance.

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