The question of how we should deal with people with the brain disease of addiction isn’t an easy one. The criminalized approach, which would have drug users sitting in jail cells across the country and offers little in the way of medical help, has had its time in the sun. Putting people in jail accomplishes very little, with soaring re-arrest rates for drug crimes testament to the fact that merely punitive action is not enough to deal with the nation’s drug problem. This is the key idea behind drug courts — they aim to help drug users solve problems and get into treatment, rather than sending them straight to jail. Graduates of drug courts, like Melissa Swanger and Kathleen C., often become advocates for the approach, a testament to their ability to turn people’s lives around.
Introduction to Drug Courts
Drug courts are specialized courts for those addicted to drugs or alcohol. Rather than send people with recognized illnesses to jail over and over again, drug courts use a multi-pronged approach with the aim of reducing the chances of both relapse and re-arrest. They do this through interactions with a judge, treatment and rehabilitation services, monitoring, supervision, sanctions and incentives, all offered according to the individual’s requirements as determined by an initial risk and needs assessment. There are consequences for failure, however; if the individual continually relapses or commits crimes, the system effectively reverts to the ordinary, incarceration-based approach.
Melissa and Kathleen’s Stories
Melissa Swanger had no criminal record until she started using meth. Her goal was to lose weight, but in addition to the 60 to 70 pounds, she lost a lot more, including her home, her car and her children as a result of her addiction. Because there was no indication she was a criminal before she began taking meth, her lawyers pointed her in the direction of the local drug court. Eight years after her entry into drug courts (and seven after her graduation) she is still clean, having made a lasting change in her life, rebuilt relationships and taken responsibility for her actions. She called it “the toughest blessing I’ve ever had,” and went on to comment how the drug court team is “willing to help people instead of saying just throw away the key.” The approach worked wonders for her, and she’s never looked back.
Another story comes from Kathleen C., a mother who found herself committing crimes in order to fund her habit—which graduated from prescription drugs to heroin and meth—so she could use at all hours of the day. She started getting high at work and lost two jobs over the course of her addiction so that eventually she was only working “seasonally” so that employers didn’t catch on to her issues. Eventually, she was arrested for theft and forgery, a moment that became her turning point. After her three-month stretch, she asked to be sent to a drug court. Since then, she’s been clean, graduating in 2012 and managing to repair her relationship with her son. She fought the program at the beginning, but soon realized it was what she needed to overcome her addiction. Since graduating she has gotten engaged and has gained an associate’s degree in applied sciences. She says, “there’s a lot of beautiful things in my life today that I wouldn’t have thought possible.”
After finishing the program, Melissa and Kathleen have become advocates for the drug courts approach. Melissa has become a recovery group leader with a church and tells her own story to inspire others to make a change. The passion the recent graduates show for the program is a testament to its ability to change lives, and the advocates it produces may lead others to make similar decisions to improve their day-to-day existence.
Punishment for Addiction: A Thing of the Past?
The drug court approach seems to be proving that the traditional, punishment-based strategy for dealing with addiction is fundamentally flawed, but not everybody shares the enthusiasm of recent graduates. There are stories of those for whom drug courts did not work, as well as critiques from groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, who argue that drug courts are not cost-effective and leave some people worse off than when they started and that the approach is more punitive than the previous method. This is because they punish users for relapsing, generally with jail time and ejection from the program, with harsher sentences for those who’ve been deemed “failures” in their attempts to get clean. However, whether this is an issue with drug courts as a concept or with how they’re put into practice is unclear.
On the other hand, the National Institute of Justice offers statistics indicating that drug courts are effective at reducing costs to the justice system (an average of $1,400 cheaper per participant) and reducing rates of re-arrest by up to 28 percent over the course of two years. The Drug Policy Alliance alleges that these studies are poorly conducted and often focus on less serious cases, but don’t deny the effectiveness of the approach for some users.
It’s unclear whether drug courts really are as effective as they’re reputed to be, but with the alternative being jail time with no real assistance in getting clean—they must be a step in the right direction. Perhaps a more health-centered approach would be even better, but these types of moves must be made gradually. Maybe, just maybe, the days of punishing people for a health problem are coming to an end.