As Drug Courts Expand, Critics Say They Aren’t Reaching Those in Greatest Need

Marijuana and the law 3-6-13

As the use of drug courts expand, critics say people with minor marijuana infractions are more likely than those with serious drug problems to end up in these programs.

Drug courts allow drug offenders to receive court-supervised treatment instead of punishment, the Los Angeles Times reports. These programs can dramatically improve the lives of people addicted to drugs, the article notes. But a growing number of people are ending up in drug court because of minor marijuana infractions, some longtime supporters tell the newspaper.

In many areas of the country, people charged with marijuana possession are the largest group of offenders sent to drug-court programs. Often, people who chronically abuse hard drugs are not allowed to participate in these programs.

“For serious drug offenders it has been a far better alternative than prison,” said John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute, who studies drug courts. “The problem is very few people who have those serious problems get into one of these drug courts. Instead, we take all kinds of people into drug court who don’t have serious problems.”

In some cases, people who might have faced a fine for marijuana use in the regular court system are instead moved into the drug-court system. They are often forced to pay for costly treatment programs, and could face jail time if they break the program rules. “Once you get that deep into the criminal justice system, it can be really hard to get out,” Roman said.

Rick Jones, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Defender Service in Harlem, New York, says his nonprofit group often sees people with low-level marijuana offenses being pressured into drug-court treatment, while people addicted to drugs are disqualified. “It is not working the way we thought or hoped it would,” Jones said.


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    Jennifer Webb

    August 8, 2015 at 8:56 AM

    Good Morning everyone. I am from Kingston Ny, I have been doing a great deal of research on Drug Court up here and all around the other States. Long story short my 24 year old Daughter who is a great smart woman, nurse as a opiate addiction and she has hidden it from us for several years and in the last several months it became bad where she lost her Job and started to steel from others to support her habit in which now she has been arrested on 6 felony accounts of burglary . She admitted to everything the courts did try to let her go to a out patient once a week meeting which I have said from the get go was not going to help so anyway she violated her order and is now in Jail, My heart breaks for her but I know this is a good thing for her. But anyway I was at court yesterday , I was the one that brought up drug court to her Lawyer she needs the help and I do not understand why they didn’t think of this first. I believe that in some cases that Judges and lawyers and the family should look deeper at the issues to se why they behave the way they do. She my daughter is a great person that fell into the wrong group boyfriend who turned her onto these pills and then she was on them for years no one new then it became so bad that she had to start stealing for her habit. But she never stole form her place of work as a nurse which I find very crazy but it is a good thing I guess.. I just guess I wanted to say from research on Drug Court that like everything else in life it will work for some and not for some. I also think that up here in NY they should really look into drug court for more of the people here. . I also am looking for some advice to help make sure she gets the best help and what can I as a parent do to help. TY Jenn

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    December 14, 2014 at 4:41 AM

    I definitely agree with this article. To me drug court is pointless and useless unless you actually have a drug problem. And i can speak on this because I got on drug court because a minor marijuana case that i had. The’re are so quick to either lock you up for 10 years or put you in drug court so that the state can make money. The system is totally flawed in NJ all these officers do is talk to you condescending, make up rules as they go along ( i remind i thought that’s what the rule book was for) so that they can get a rise out of you to react so that they can just through you in jail. Not to mentions i have personally seen where people have gotten sanctions for 4 days and it’s so ironic that these officers forget about them releasing them after 2 weeks. Where’s the justice for the people in drug court. What they need to do is make more programs that with help us in finding more jobs and helping us getting into school. Especially for the people that have drugs/ distribution convictions on there record

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    Roger Thorne

    August 18, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    A recent Los Angeles Times article by Evan Halper gave a very myopic, negative, and erroneous view of the 2700 drug courts throughout this country. Mr. Halper uses one lawyer’s criticisms regarding one drug court participant in one particular drug court as an indictment of all drug courts. With that logic, if one local reporter at the Birmingham News wrote an article in which he made up quotations, pretended to be at scenes, and plagiarized from other sources, then all reporters at all newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, would be suspect. Wait, that did happen at the New York Times when a reporter in the recent past did all these things and more (see Jayson Blair). Does that mean all reporters and all newspapers are suspect? Of course not. All the journalists I personally know hold themselves to a high ethical journalistic standard. The same high ethical standard is true of most drug court professionals.

    The purpose of Mr. Halper’s article was to point out the schizophrenic way the federal government and the states treat marijuana. No one can deny that, but using drug courts to make this case is unfair. Individual states where marijuana is illegal do not have a choice about enforcing existing laws. Neither law enforcement nor the courts have a choice in which laws to enforce. As pointed out in Mr. Halper’s piece, Kansas enforces laws about the illegal possession of marijuana while the neighboring state of Colorado has made possession legal. What alternatives do the Kansas officials have? There is a legitimate debate to be had about making marijuana legal throughout the country, but to disparage officials in states where it is currently illegal is unwarranted. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges have sworn oaths to abide by the laws on the books. A nation of laws cannot ignore current statutes without inviting anarchy. If one wishes to change those laws, there are means to do so, but painting drug courts in a negative light to do so is unjust.

    I will not deny there are probably extreme cases in some courts that are outside of what is considered to be “best practices.” It would be foolish to say otherwise, but to lump all drug courts as the same is as foolish as lumping all reporters into the same category as Jayson Blair.

    The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) and the Alabama Association of Drug Court Professionals (AADCP) has established, based on extensive and exhaustive research, 10 key components of effective drug courts. As a part of this, there is research that points to evidence-based practices where treatment dosage (type of treatment and time spent in treatment) produces the best outcome. For more information about this go to:

    Mr. Halper feels that the majority of participants in drug courts do not need the amount of treatment they receive. It is true that research shows that it is counter-productive for participants who are a low risk to reoffend or relapse to receive too much dosage (type and time in treatment.) As a result, the Adult Felony Drug Court in Jefferson County, Alabama has established a series of tracks based upon a participant’s likelihood to reoffend or relapse by utilizing an evidenced-based Risks/Needs Assessment tool. As a result, a participant charged with a felony possession of marijuana more likely than not will be in the shortest track which requires three months of participation. In that time, they must attend a 20 hour drug use education class and perform 25 hours of community service. If they are compliant, they never even have to come back to court for a review. In the Adult Misdemeanor Drug Court, a marijuana possession charge will result in either a 12 hour or 24 hour drug education class based upon the participants needs. These are not draconian measures and are based on research and evidence-based practices.

    Another point of Mr. Halper’s is based on an assertion by John Roman from the Urban Institute who alleges that those most in need of treatment are not accepted into drug courts. Neither Mr. Halper nor Mr. Roman give empirical evidence to support this claim. In the Adult Felony Drug Court of Jefferson County, Alabama, 81% of our 285 participants have a risk or need factor of moderate to high which means that without intervention they are likely to either relapse and/or commit another crime. Forty-nine percent of participants have a diagnosis of substance abuse or dependence. It seems this drug court accepts those in need.

    Mr. Halper and the Los Angeles Times owe an apology for painting all drug courts in a negative light to forward an argument for legalizing marijuana. His argument is biased, based on limited input, and almost completely untrue except in some circumstances. No evidence was presented to show his allegations are widespread. The apology should not be made to the judges and staffs of the hundreds of drug courts across the country. The apology should be made to the thousands of participants who are benefiting from the vast majority of drug courts which are operating in an ethical way, using best practices.

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    Ernie Glenn

    August 11, 2014 at 6:14 PM

    With ten years of service to the Bexar County District Courts’ Felony Drug Court under my belt in San Antonio, TX, all I can say is that if there is any truth in this article, then things are awfully different in Harlem than here! We normally have 250 or more high risk/needs participants in our program at any given time who are addicted to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, any number and type of pills (xanax and hydrocodone are very popular), alcohol, etc., but rarely do we admit anyone who only uses marijuana. Sure, quite a number of our folks do use pot, but then again, poly-substance abuse is more the rule than the exception! Add to that the fact that 40% or more of our clients have mental illnesses and self medicate, and try to find an easy case (low hanging fruit) in the bunch! We also have programs for misdemeanor offenders with multiple Intoxicated Driving offenses, those with Mental Illness, for Veterans, and other addicted offenders, but I have no idea where there exists a Drug Court that handles “cherry picked” cases…

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    Marianne Carniak

    August 6, 2014 at 8:36 AM

    I am not sure where the “Join Together Staff” is getting their information for this article, but if they want the true facts of who qualifies for Drug Courts and how effective they are, any of your staff are more than welcome to contact me. I’ve worked as the primary therapist for a district drug court in Michigan for 4 years, and have many wonderful stories of success involving high risk heroin/opiate addicts, alcoholics, and poly-substance abusers. Only one client was primarily a marijuana user with multiple probation violations, who admittedly could not stop on her own and wanted the extra help that regular probation could not provide for her. I stay in touch with her to this day and she has over 3 years clean, not only from marijuana, but has not even picked up a drink nor done any other drug. This article is an insult to me and my team. Please get your story straight and print an update.

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