NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Drug Courts Substitute Therapy for Punishment

December 30, 1999

For nonviolent drug law offenders, drug courts offer a regimen of drug testing, group therapy, graduated sanctions and frequent reviews before a judge as a means to overcome their supposed substance addiction. The incentive for the so-called "clients" is to avoid jail time and clear their record.

  • Five years ago there were only 12 drug courts nationwide.
  • Now there are almost 400, with hundreds more in the planning stages, backed by more than $100 million in federal seed money.
  • Some 140,000 defendants who would otherwise have been prosecuted for non-violent drug offenses have enrolled in drug courts since 1989.
  • Roughly one-quarter of the two million prisoners in the U.S. are behind bars just for drug offenses, says crime expert John J. DiIulio Jr.

Detractors have dubbed this alternative to criminal justice the "therapeutic state." Some of its advocates want to expand the therapeutic model to cases of domestic violence, larceny, prostitution and even rape. These people are sick, they insist, and should be treated by therapists, rather than punished.

The Department of Justice says 70 percent of all drug court participants have either finished the program or stayed in treatment; 90 percent of drug tests have been clean; and the recidivism rate for program graduates is only 4 percent, compared to "well over 50 percent" of defendants who go through the "traditional adjudication process."

But the most extensive independent evaluation, by the General Accounting Office in 1997, concluded that current evidence "did not firmly establish whether drug court programs were successful...." Other studies -- including ones by the Rand Corporation and the American Bar Association -- have found drug courts had no discernible effect on crime rates.

And critics say that the therapeutic state may just substitute an explosion in the patient population for an explosion of the prison population.

Source: Eric Cohen, "The Drug Court Revolution," Weekly Standard, December 27, 1999.


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