Federal Judges Work With Prosecutors to Create Drug Courts

Following decades of success for drug courts at the state level, federal judges around the nation are collaborating with prosecutors to create the special treatment programs for defendants who are addicted to drugs, The New York Times reports.

These defendants normally would face significant time in prison, the article notes. The judges hope to work around drug laws that are often seen as too harsh and inflexible. The Justice Department is permitting U.S. attorneys to reduce or even dismiss charges in some drug cases.

Defendants in drug court must accept responsibility for their crime, and agree to receive drug treatment and other social services. They must attend regular meetings with judges, who monitor their progress. If they successfully participate in the program, they receive a reduced sentence, or even no jail time. Failure to successfully complete the program results in them being sent to prison. Defendants facing more serious charges are not eligible for drug court.

Legal experts say drug courts are a less costly and more effective option than prison for many low-level repeat offenders. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, every dollar spent on drug courts yields more than two dollars in savings in the criminal justice system alone.

Federal judges have instituted drug court programs in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. So far, about 400 defendants have been involved in federal drug court programs.

The United States Sentencing Commission has established guidelines for sentencing since 1984, after studies found federal judges were giving different sentences for similar crimes. Judges feel the guidelines interfere with their judicial independence, according to the article. “When you impose a sentence that you believe is unjust, it is a very difficult thing to do,” Stefan R. Underhill, a federal judge in Connecticut, told the newspaper. “It feels wrong.”

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    March 4, 2013 at 7:22 PM

    The drug courts in NY work best if the defendant chooses treatment. However, some will take the jail time because as someone said to me, “they have a few runs” left in them. You can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Same for addicts. Yes, there also needs to be more support provided once in treatment is over. It doesn’t work if the dealers are waiting outside the outpatient treatment centers with the poison they sell. Yes,it’s up to the addicts to maintain recovery but for those newly sober, it’s a temptation those who do not have an addiction will never understand.

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    Susan Broderick

    March 4, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    I am always happy to hear about efforts to improve responses to offenders with drug and alcohol problems in the justice system. Because of the correlation between substance abuse and crime, I hope that these efforts include educating judges, prosecutors and all front-line justice officials about the importance of what happens AFTER treatment. For those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, treatment is just the beginning and efforts must be made to include recovery support in these conversations.

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