Study: Drug courts could reduce prison population

Friday, May 30, 2008 | 9:13 p.m. CDT; updated 1:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — It would cost the United States $14 billion to create a national network of drug courts to steer criminals into addiction treatment rather than prison. But the investment could ultimately save the public $46 billion over the long run, according to a study released here Friday.

Former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the study supports his belief that drug court programs must be expanded to give criminals addiction treatment. It’s the only way to move repeat criminals out of the justice system and back to a normal life, he said during a meeting of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

“This is not a war on drugs,” McCaffrey said. “This is a social problem. A community problem. A values problem.”

The study was conducted by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The group analyzed what would happen if drug courts were expanded to cover the 1.5 million U.S. inmates who might be eligible, as opposed to the roughly 55,000 who have access to the courts now, said Urban Institute senior researcher John Roman.

Roughly 85 percent of the savings from drug courts would come through reducing repeat offenses by defendants who kick their addictions, Roman said. The savings include money taxpayers wouldn’t spend on repeated arrests, court hearings and incarcerations that often dog drug addicts, he said.

South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Chuck Simmons said drug courts use the full weight of the justice system to persuade drug or alcohol addicts to get treatment after they commit a crime. But the courts remain a rarity in the United States.

Defendants who choose to participate meet with a drug court judge once a week, Simmons said. They also attend counseling sessions and undergo frequent drug screening. If they fail, they are kicked out of the court and must serve jail time for their initial crime.

Simmons said drugs and alcohol are involved in the crimes of some 70 percent of the defendants who enter his court. Treating addiction attacks the root of the problem, he said.

“I went into (the drug court program) with some hesitation,” Simmons said. “But it works in no way I’ve ever seen the criminal justice system work.”

McCaffrey said funding for national drug court programs was $40 million annually when he stepped down as drug czar. The funding has since been cut to $15 million, he said. He recommended the funding drastically increase to keep a majority of offenders out of prison.

Building a national network of drug courts wouldn’t be easy, McCaffrey said. It would require training and hiring leagues of counselors to help addicts beat their habits, but the payoff would be worth it.

“If you want to unclog American prisons, then we’ve got to take drug courts to scale,” he said.

Actress Melanie Griffith was at the meeting Friday to support drug court expansion. She said she could have benefited from such a program as she battled addiction in the past.

“The support is really important. But the accountability is even more important,” she said.

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