Drug Courts: A Program to Reinvent Justice for Addicts
For the past several decades, drug use has had an overwhelming effect upon the American justice system, with drug and drug-related crime being the most common offense in almost every community (Drug Strategies, 1996). Beyond the troubling ability of these problems to fill prisons to capacity, the traditional judicial system seemed to have no deterrent effect on these crimes (Drug and Crime Facts, 1994). A disturbing "revolving door" pattern had emerged, with drug offenders moving through the system in a predictable pattern of arrest, prosecution, conviction, incarceration, and release. In a few weeks, sometimes only a few days, the same person was back in the system again, arrested for drug possession or a drug-related crime (National Association of Drug Court Professionals [NADCP], 1997). A particularly difficult problem faced by the system was the growing use of crack cocaine in the 1980s (Miller & Gold, 1994). The legislature passed tougher laws imposing longer sentences, such as the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, and the nation struggled to find a solution for its drug and crime problem ("The Effective National Drug Control Strategy," 1999).
One of the reasons that the traditional judicial system did not seem capable of dealing with the drug abuse problems was the way that it viewed the drug addict (Johnson & Waletzko, 1992, 199). In the early twentieth century, the system saw the problem as one needing punishment, a direct result from the moral justification of punishing people for using drugs, that is, a weakness of spirit or an inability to control oneself that leads to drug use ("A History of Drug Use and Prohibition"). Eventually, this moralistic attitude was replaced with a more medical point-of-view, which saw the drug addition problem as a disease (Morgan, 1980, 87). Although it was difficult for the legal and medical fields to come together on this issue, the disease formulation of addiction was expressed in a 1962 landmark Supreme Court decision, Robinson v. California. In this opinion, Justice William Douglas stated that the Court could not see how "under our system being an addict can be punished as a crime... Each has a disease and must be treated as a sick person" (Douglas, 1962, 674). The opinion stated that the ultimate goal of drug-control related laws should be "to cure, not to penalize" (Douglas, 1962, 660). Although it took a decade for this attitude to completely pervade the judicial system, this shift in approach brought about changes in the way the judicial system approached drug problems.
A concrete result of the Robinson decision was the formation of a special set of treatment centers known as Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC) in 1972 ("Treatment Accountability Fact Sheet," 1995). TASC was developed to provide a bride between the justice system and the drug treatment community, where the judiciary would sent the addict for treatment, and upon completion of the program, he or she would return to court for disposition, usually having the charges dropped (Nolan, 2001, 36-37). Although this was a method of bringing the disease model of addiction into the legal system, the treatment itself was still separate from the court. As will be discussed fully below, this is where TASC differs from drug courts. With the advent of the drug court system, TASC and the drug courts often work together in providing all the services needed for the addict population (Peyton & Gebelein, 1994).
Even with the development of TASC, the addict prison population still increased and the revolving door spun unabated, creating a growing feeling among judges and other members of the judicial system that the system was still failing the public in its attempts to deal with the drug and crime problem (Nolan, 2001, 44). The common refrain from court officials was, "What we were doing is simply not working." (Nolan, 2001, 59). An additional concern for the American judicial system was that it was losing its public support, being perceived as having no effect on the problem of crime. Thomas Merrigan, a Massachusetts judge described this situation in a speech that he made during a drug court convention:
If we don't change what we are doing in the next few years, and if we don't change how we go about serving the community with more relevancy, with more meaning, we are going to find that in twenty-five years, we have become irrelevant in the minds of the public. They will no longer consider us meaningful (Nolan, 2001, 58).
Thus, the popular opinion was that something had to be done to deal with the growing number of drug offenses, the high repeat offender rate by drug offenders, the overcrowded jails, the high cost of incarceration (as compared to a lower cost of treatment), and the heavy criminal case loads of the courts. So in response to these issues and upon the recommendation of a report by Associate Chief Judge Herbert Klein of the Eleventh Circuit, the first drug court was established in Dade County, Florida in 1989 in an attempt to reduce Miami's growing number of felony drug cases. (Nolan, 2001, 39). The NADCP defines a drug court by its mission. Specifically, t]he mission of drug courts is to stop the abuse of alcohol and other drugs and related criminal activity. Drug courts offer a compelling choice for individuals whose criminal justice involvement stems from AOD [alcohol and other drug] use: participation in treatment. In exchange for successful completion of the treatment program, the court may dismiss the original charge, reduce or set aside a sentence, offer some lesser penalty, or offer a combination of these (NADCP, 1997, 7).
Since its start in 1989, the drug court program has become an extremely popular new approach to the judicial treatment of drug and drug-related crime. Specifically, as of December 2000, the latest figures that are available, there are now 804 drug courts in operation, with 507 in the planning stage ("Drug Court Facts"). As Nolan observes, "[t]he rapid expansion of the drug court model has led participants and observers alike to label the phenomenon a 'movement,' even a 'revolution' in criminal justice" (2001, 39).
It is important to note that drug courts did not just appear fully formed on the judicial scene. An enormous amount of planning and preparation occurred before any community was ready to set up its own drug court, and must occur whenever a new drug court is put into place (NADCP, 1997, 7-8). Some of the issues that have to be decided before formation include how offenders are going to be identified as eligible for the program; the treatment methods that the court is going to utilize, and the expectations that are going to be placed on the participants. The organizers must also determine what support service is available, how the different organizations involved are going to coordinate their efforts and the formal policies and procedures they are going to follow. Finally, there are also contractual and budgetary agreements to consider, the determination of who is going to provide ongoing supervision and how the process and outcome are going to be evaluated (NADCP, 1997, 8). Many new drug courts take advantage of the NADCP's mentoring court program that provides technical and education assistance, as well as visiting opportunities for the new court's personnel ("NADCP COURT Mentoring Program").
Many people are involved in this initial planning stage. Some of the central figures are those that will be running the court itself, include the judge, his or her clerk, a court administrator, and the prosecutors and defenders that will be still representing the drug court clients, as offenders are called in this program (Nolan, 2001, 6). In order to insure governmental support that will be necessary for the program, the initial planning group should also include representatives from State and local treatment providers, law enforcement, pretrial and probation services, the jails, and other community-based organizations. The operational, coordination, resource, and information management, and evaluation needs of the program are developed by this core group into a work plan (NADCP, 8). The work plan should be specific, describing roles and responsibilities of each program component. In this way, the different participants can become used to the often very different roles that they will play in the drug court system, as compared to their roles in the traditional legal setting (Tauber, 1993, 5).
So what are the particular characteristics of a drug court that make it so unique as to be considered "a revolution" in criminal justice? Because each court was independently developed, there is no clear consistency even in such basic qualities as the day-to-day function of the program or the criteria for participation. In essence, there are as many methods of running a drug court within the legal system as there are drug courts themselves (Bean, 1996). However, the NADCP has identified the key components shared by all drug courts that form the essence of their function and…