Drug courts are effective, says review by courts and drug agency

By Don Thompson The Associated Press
Wednesday April 17, 2002

SACRAMENTO — A nearly 10-year-old California experiment with a once-radical substance treatment program has proven effective in cutting both crime and drug abuse, two groups with interests in the program said Tuesday. 

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, a Republican, said in releasing the report that the study shows “drug courts are helping the justice system and the public by decreasing drug use, improving lives, and protecting communities.” 

Arrests of drug court graduates dropped 85 percent for two years after they successfully completed treatment, compared to two years before they entered the program, according to a study of about 3,000 offenders who completed the program in 34 California counties. 

The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs and the Judicial Council said their study’s participants often began with significant problems. 

About 70 percent reported using drugs for more than five years, and 40 percent for more than a decade. Little more than half had graduated from high school, and just 13 percent had attended college. A typical offender had been arrested twice and jailed once in the two years before joining the program. 

The study also found that: 

— While 64 percent of offenders were unemployed when they entered the program, 70 percent had jobs by the time they left. 

— 95 percent of babies born to mothers in the program were born drug-free, and 96 percent of drug tests were negative for participants during the program. 

— 28 percent of graduates retained or regained child custody, 7 percent gained visitation rights, and 8 percent caught up on child support payments. 

— The program saved state and local governments $42 million by diverting offenders who otherwise would have gone to prison or jail, though that was offset by the $14 million spent on the drug courts. 

The study ordered by state legislators collected data on offenders sent to drug courts in the 34 counties between January 2000 and September 2001. 

Drug courts began in Dade County, Fla., in 1989, during the height of the South Florida cocaine wars. They were first tried in Oakland in 1993 and have since spread across the nation and to 50 of California’s 58 counties. 

They were among the most tolerant of court-based drug treatment programs until November 2000, when California voters followed the lead of Arizona and required that first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders be sent to treatment rather than jail. 

Still, Proposition 36 treatment programs that have worked best since the initiative took effect last July have been those that followed a drug court pattern, Butte County Judge Darrell W. Stevens, chair of Judicial Council Proposition 36 Implementation Committee, said last week. 

He and other advocates laud the courts’ reliance on cooperation between law enforcement and treatment providers, overseen by a judge who alternately threatens and cajoles offenders into getting help and staying drug-free. 

Proposition 36 courts work much the same way, but judges are generally barred from using the “flash incarcerations” many drug court judges used to instantly punish recalcitrant offenders with several days in jail.