The 2-year-old Los Angeles Drug Court program has become a national model by operating on a seemingly ironic premise: The criminal justice system ought to go out of its way to help some drug users avoid going to jail.
Drug courts, which sentence addicts to treatment programs instead of time behind bars, are multiplying across the country, fueled by enthusiasm from the Clinton administration.
Their compassionate approach stands out in an era of tough anti-crime policies such as California's three-strikes sentencing law. Yet prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials swear by them as a way to steer addicts away from drugs and criminal activity.
The number of drug courts has grown from just a handful in the 1980s to about 80 across the country, with at least 90 more on the way, and officials from other states are looking to Los Angeles for guidance.
The local program is "considered to be one of the leading programs in the country," said Caroline S. Cooper, who oversees American University's National Drug Court Clearinghouse in Washington.
There are currently 75 men and women participating in the downtown Los Angeles drug court program. Sixty-four others have "graduated" by completing a yearlong program of daily drug treatment meetings and frequent urine tests.
Most of those sentenced in L.A.'s drug court are cocaine addicts. Those with violent felony convictions are not eligible.
About 40% of them make it through the program. That's the lowest completion rate of 20 programs nationwide surveyed by the National Drug Court Clearinghouse.
But those who evaluate drug courts say the Los Angeles court, which receives those arrested in the inner city, takes some of the most troubled drug users in the country, women and men in extreme poverty who are often homeless.
"You can't really compare success rates because what [Los Angeles] is dealing with is so much different from first-time offenders from stable families," said American University's Cooper.
Municipal Judge Stephen A. Marcus, who presides over the drug court, points out that "many of our people are unemployed, a number are transients; they have marginal life skills in addition to an eight-to-10-year addiction habit."
Of the more than 64 L.A. drug court graduates, five so far have been rearrested for misdemeanor offenses, none involving illegal drugs. Marcus said the program is too new to predict what proportion of graduates will eventually slip back into addiction or crime.
In May, federal officials awarded Los Angeles County $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to strengthen the L.A. drug court and programs created more recently in the Pasadena, Rio Hondo and Santa Monica courts.
The grant was part of $8.5 million in Justice Department grants awarded nationally to upgrade seven existing drug court programs and to start drug courts in nine counties. Los Angeles County is planning to additionally boost drug court programs by putting $600,000 in county alcohol and drug treatment funds into drug courts.
"Drug courts provide the incentive, and the 'stick' without which many young people would never seek drug treatment and alternatives to drug use," U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has said.
Reno was the state attorney for Florida's Dade County in the late 1980s when she spearheaded one of the first drug courts in Miami. In Clinton's anti-drug pronouncements, the president has frequently cited drug courts as the kind of preventive program needed to supplement traditional sentencing.
Ironically, the program Reno started in Miami was criticized in 1991 after it was expanded to include those with felony convictions. A study showed that a quarter of the Miami drug court's graduates were rearrested on felony charges. Prosecutors also accused felons of plea-bargaining into drug court to avoid jail time.
Los Angeles has avoided that problem by limiting the eligibility for drug court. Those with violent felony convictions are not allowed into the program, nor are those with felony convictions for drug sales or trafficking.
The strict eligibility limits have kept the program in favor with prosecutors.
Paul Pfau, a deputy district attorney who was assigned to the program in its first year, said drug court is not an easy alternative to jail time.
Because of jail overcrowding, those convicted of drug possession seldom serve full 90-day terms, making involvement in drug court a much longer commitment, Pfau said.
Drug court "really is a tough alternative," he said. "It doesn't coddle anybody. It gives people a chance, but within strict guidelines."
The drug court treatment program is based on the 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition to the daily meetings and frequent urine tests, participants also pay a $200 fee, which Marcus said gives them an added stake in their treatment.
Some of those who've completed the program speak of it glowingly.