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New Kind of Justice Encourages Offenders to Break Deadly Habits

Rehabilitation: Emphasizing treatment rather than punishment, drug courts will soon be operating in 48 states.


PENSACOLA, Fla. — Daily across America, captives in the war on drugs get hauled into court by the thousands: addicts and small-time dealers nabbed with chunks of crack cocaine, a marijuana butt, a wad of hot cash. Most get tossed behind bars or freed on probation. And at least half of them will commit another crime.

Nearly a decade ago, judges began rebelling against this recycling of drug offenders. The result today is a nationwide movement quietly dispensing a new kind of justice that aims not to punish, but to cure.

It's called drug court.

Circuit Judge John Parnham used to think he was doing the right thing by ordering drug treatment for the addicts he sentenced to probation. Still, many broke his rules and got packed off to jail. "I would say, 'I gave you every opportunity,' " Parnham said. In fact, "the opportunity I gave them was an opportunity to fail."

Six years ago, he started a drug court in his balmy Gulf Coast city of Pensacola.

Conceived in 1989 in Miami, where an early champion was then-chief prosecutor Janet Reno, the drug court idea has spread mainly by word of mouth. It got a boost in the last three years with $87 million in grants from U.S. Atty. Gen. Reno's Justice Department.

Today there are about 275 drug courts nationwide. With another 175 in the works, they'll soon be operating in 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico. There's also a federal drug court in Yosemite National Park.

In these courtrooms, there are no bad guys. Instead of shackles and shame, wrongdoers receive hours of personal and group counseling and encouraging words and attention from the judge.

In drug courts of the Pensacola-based 1st Judicial Circuit, judges greet defendants with "Glad to see you!" and "We're very proud of you" and "Anything you want to talk to me about?"

Judges may see these same offenders as often as once a week to keep tabs on their health, work and home life. The judges also bring together prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, probation and treatment agencies to help the addict recover. Instead of languishing in prison at taxpayer expense, defendants get help getting jobs and education.

Attendance at such programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is required. There are frequent urine tests. A slip may bring a weekend or two weeks in jail, or 16 hours of volunteer work, or an essay on the damage crack does. Those who make it are honored with a graduation ceremony. Those who fail end up behind bars.

Since opening the circuit's first drug court for adults five years ago, Parnham has enlisted three more judges to hold drug courts in the circuit so he could start spinoffs. Those deal with juvenile drug users, youngsters arrested for family violence and addict parents who lost their children over alleged abuse and neglect.

"We can't make them change," Parnham said. "But we can provide motivation that treatment never had before--and that the system never had before."

How well drug courts work, no one knows for sure. Only now are national evaluations underway. A General Accounting Office report last year drew no conclusions, saying drug courts were too new and diverse. But a rough gauge of success appears in preliminary results of a survey sponsored by the Justice Department to be released at a June 4-6 meeting in Washington of the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals.

The survey of 125 drug courts estimates 64,000 offenders are going through the process or have successfully completed it. Among those who finished the program, researchers found, the rearrest rate is less than 10%. Even among the 29% who fail to complete the program, recidivism appears to be far lower than for those who never entered drug court.

No studies compare this population with those who go through conventional courts. But about half of those convicted of drug felonies are arrested again within three years of returning to the community, federal figures show.

Costs are another unknown. Drug courts demand more time. Treatment is expensive and usually takes longer than the year allotted. But jail and prison cost even more. Multnomah County, Ore., for instance, found that every dollar spent on its drug court program saved $2.50.

The nascent drug court movement recognizes that inside most drug criminals is an addict and that, like cigarettes, illicit drugs can be hard to shake in just one try. So drug courts are willing to give defendants a second, third and fourth chance, with punishment as a last resort.

Even hard-liners seem to recognize this is not a case of coddling criminals, since drug courts have attracted no vocal criticism. Rhode Island is considering legislation to make it the 49th state with drug courts. Only New Hampshire rejected the idea--because it already has a remarkably similar system.

At the same time, drug court's advocates caution against premature enthusiasm.

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