Focusing on drug courts is counterproductive

As proponents of criminal justice reform, we at the Justice Policy Institute agree with many of the points made by Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) and actor Martin Sheen (“Why we need more drug courts,” July 27). However, we must disagree with the authors on the efficacy of drug courts.

Not only are we facing a budget crisis, but an incarceration crisis as well. This country’s over-reliance on incarceration is costing taxpayers $70 billion a year and does not make us any safer. Further, since 1980, incarceration for drug offenses has increased by more than 1400 percent. Our system is broken, and something needs to be done.

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Our own analysis of drug court research and that of the General Accountability Office both show that they have not significantly reduced incarceration or the associated costs. Drug courts are expensive and are not a true alternative to incarceration. In fact, drug courts actually may increase the criminal justice involvement of people with drug problems, and the harms and consequences of a conviction record are substantial. For all of the moving stories of people who succeed and graduate from drug court, there are many more unheard stories of those ejected from drug court, often for the very relapses that are symptomatic of addiction, and thrown behind bars.

As we consider the most effective ways to improve community safety, we ought to focus on solutions that will reduce drug addiction before people get swept up into the justice system. The U.S. House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee has drug courts slotted to receive an increase in funding to $40 million in the coming year; we must ask whether during tough budgetary choices, this trade-off between more drug courts and fewer resources for programs proven to better reduce incarceration — such as community-based treatment — is worth it. Increasing access to treatment outside the justice system will not only provide millions with the help they need and want, but will keep people out of courts and jails altogether and improve public safety at lower cost. These are outcomes surely we all could get behind.

From Nastassia Walsh, research manager at the Justice Policy Institute and author of “Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities," Washington, D.C.