Detroit a model when it comes to solving the opioid epidemic

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While Motown was once known as “Murder Capital, U.S.A.” murder in Detroit has been displaced by another scourge: opioids. In Detroit, and other places in Michigan and across the nation, cities are turning to new ways to purse effective criminal justice.

As law enforcement agencies work to get drugs off the street, lawyers and judges are doing their part to ensure justice is served for dealers and users. Prosecutors are bringing homicide charges against drug dealers whose wares result in the deaths of their customers. They’re also bringing charges of health care fraud against doctors who overprescribe prescription medications. Judges, meanwhile, are adapting as their caseloads are filled with people whose crimes are inextricably bound up in their addiction.

Specialty dockets are one innovative way to respond to the opioid challenge. These “problem-solving courts,” sometimes known as “drug courts” were pioneered by a trial judge in Hawaii to combat drug addiction and alcoholism among the defendants in his courtroom.

{mosads}In a typical drug court, a local trial court devotes extra time and resources to a set of criminal defendants who have a specific need in common. They may, for example, be veterans, or they may struggle with alcoholism, drug addiction or mental health illness. This problem-solving court differs from a traditional court in some important ways. It is not as adversarial as a standard court proceeding, nor does it focus merely on assigning guilt; instead, it uses a team-based approach to resolve the underlying issues that contribute to the defendant’s criminality.


Offenders who are caught up in substance abuse often cycle through the traditional criminal justice system. But drug courts seek to end substance abuse in the people who enter them, using treatment, intensive supervision and drug testing, frequent status hearings before their judge, and graduated incentives and sanctions. Judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense counsel, probation officers and treatment providers collaborate to help participants build accountability and make healthy choices.

And the model works: By treating the underlying problem, these courts reduce the rate at which offenders commit additional crimes while simultaneously shrinking the number who are drug-addicted or alcohol-dependent. The model saves money in the long run — and the lives of defendants.

The broader public benefits, too, by reduced recidivism, or repeated criminal behavior. Recidivism rates are usually calculated by examining criminal acts in the first two or four years after the initial crime, and the track record in Michigan is impressive.

The two-year recidivism rate for graduates of drug courts there is 6.8 percent, compared to 30.9 percent for people who were prosecuted in the traditional adult criminal system. The four-year rates are higher, but still, drug courts hold an advantage: 17.6 percent, compared to 51.2 percent. Adult drug court graduates in 2015 and 2016 received an average of 238 hours of substance abuse disorder treatment, and experienced a 94 percent reduction in unemployment during their participation in drug court programs.

Michigan courts began using the problem-solving model in the late 2000s; over 185 courts use it today, with 40 counties operating 32 adult drug courts, 11 juvenile drug courts, 23 DWI courts and 11 family dependency courts.

Michigan crime rates are dropping as we invest in “smart justice” tools like community policing, reducing barriers to employment for former offenders, and embracing data-driven court and corrections practices. We’re learning that being tough on crime might mean being practical and compassionate with people.

So even the most conservative law-and-order policymakers should agree that if we are going to administer criminal justice, we should do it in a way that is more likely to improve defendants’ long-term wellness.  Addiction, mental health and unemployment are key factors in criminality, and it’s become apparent that resolving those factors is an effective way to reduce an offender’s likelihood of reoffending in the future. The result is a healthier society and healthier public budgets.

Once experimental, problem-solving courts are going mainstream in Michigan. States across the country may very well find themselves looking to the former murder capital as the new leader in effective criminal justice.

Kahryn Riley is a policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a free market education and research institute.

Tags Crime Criminal justice Criminal justice reform in the United States Detroit Drug rehabilitation Kahryn Riley Michigan Opioids

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