A national organization’s critical report on drug courts has supporters defending a system they say has reduced repeat offenses and improved lives by making substance abuse treatment a part of the judicial process.
This week the 11,000-member National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers issued "America’s Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform," a report that studied some of the nation’s 2,100-plus drug, DUI and mental health courts. Hall County operates four treatment courts that require participants to get ongoing court-monitored treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues. All but DUI court are voluntary.
The report criticizes drug courts that require participants to plead guilty to the underlying charge before treatment begins. In Hall County’s felony drug court, the criminal charge is dismissed and the conviction erased if a participant successfully completes the intensive two-year program.
The report claims that the system "results in dismissals for relatively few defendants."
But in Hall County drug court, 91 percent of the people who have entered the program have successfully completed it and had their charges dropped, with 313 graduates since the program started in 2000. Only 4.9 percent of those who have completed the program have gone on to commit new offenses, a far lower recidivism rate than typical felony cases, according to Debbie Mott, Hall County’s director of treatment services.
Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who oversees felony drug court in Hall and Dawson counties, disagrees with the report’s contention that drug courts should be operated without requiring a participant to first plead guilty.
Deal said one of the keys to the effectiveness of drug courts is that participants know if they don’t complete the requirements and are terminated from the program, the felony conviction stays.
"It gives willpower to folks whose willpower has been undermined by their addictions," Deal said. Voluntary substance abuse treatment is less successful because "they can just walk away from private treatment," Deal said. "They can’t walk away from drug court."
The report faults treatment courts for operating with little input from the defense bar and claims most defendants aren’t adequately counseled on their rights.
Deal notes that local defense attorneys had equal input when the criteria and policies were first set for Hall County’s drug court under the leadership of Senior Judge John Girardeau. The drug court team includes a defense attorney on staff, and private attorneys can also advocate on behalf of their clients in court, Deal said.
Drug court participants meet at least twice with a defense attorney before making a decision on entering the program and are counseled extensively on their rights before pleading guilty, the judge said.
The report is critical of drug courts that have strict entry requirements and don’t accept high-risk repeat offenders, which it says are often those most in need of treatment.
In Hall County, participants in the felony court can only have one prior felony conviction and cannot have any convictions for violent crimes.
Federal requirements made when the court was started with Justice Department grants are part of the reason violent offenders are not allowed into the program, Deal said. But it’s also a safety precaution for drug court staffers who are not law enforcement officers, he said.
Also, high-risk offenders could not be mixed in with low-risk offenders and the latter still be successful, Deal said. Prosecutors who answer to the public also may be reluctant to dismiss charges against a person with multiple prior convictions, he said.
"This has to be something that all the different parties are willing to participate in," Deal said. "It’s a collaboration between the defense, the prosecution and the courts."
Advocates of drug courts take the biggest issue with what they say is an overtly political slant to the National Association of Defense Lawyer’s report. The report recommends decriminalizing low-level drug use and asserts that drugs should be a public health concern, not a criminal justice issue.
"The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers favors legalization of drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine," Chris Deutch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said in a statement. "Therefore, it is not surprising that it chooses to attack our nation’s most successful justice intervention for substance-abusing offenders: drug courts."
Deal said the scientific data backs up drug courts. But some of their benefits to society are "incalculable," he said.
People who were once a drain on the system become employed, taxpaying and responsible parents, Deal said.
Said Mott, "It’s just kind of hard to dispute when you see folks return to their families and becoming productive members of society."
Said Deal, "I’ve got a box full of letters in my office and every one says, ‘Drug court saved my life; if it weren’t for drug court I’d be dead or in prison, I wouldn’t have stopped.’ So, it’s hard to argue with that data."