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Drug Courts, for Hard Cases

April 25, 2002

Drug courts--treatment programs pioneered in California eight years ago and typically lasting about a year--compel district attorneys, cops and public defenders to set aside their adversarial roles and cooperate to keep substance abusers clean. The courts are one of the few criminal justice reforms that both conservative and liberal criminal justice scholars strongly support. And they save money.

Last week, Gov. Gray Davis' Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs released a report showing that the $15 million that California spends on drug courts each year saves taxpayers at least $43.4 million. Savings come from such things as keeping people out of jail and helping parents kick drug abuse, thus keeping their children out of foster care.

The governor, however, does not appear to be reading his own departments' reports. His most recent budget chops drug court funding by more than half, to $7 million. Perhaps Davis thinks drug courts unnecessary in the wake of Proposition 36, a measure approved by voters in 2000 that requires judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. In fact, drug courts can do three things that generally lenient Proposition 36 programs can't:

* Cast a wide net. Proposition 36 bars judges from sentencing an addict to treatment if that addict has ever sold drugs, even to a friend. Drug court judges have no such restriction. They could decide that a low-level drug dealer whose selling merely finances his addiction should undergo strictly monitored treatment rather than be given a long prison term.

* Use tough punishments for people who respond better to sticks than carrots. Proposition 36 bars judges from using "flash incarcerations"--a few days in jail--to motivate recalcitrant offenders to stay off drugs and in treatment.

* Extend treatment programs for repeat offenders. About 30% of people sentenced to treatment in the first six months after Proposition 36 went into effect either failed to show up or dropped out of programs. Under Proposition 36, a substance abuser gets three chances at treatment. The next offense means prison or jail. But as drug court founder Stephen Manley, a Northern California judge, puts it, "This is where drug courts make the system work." They can deal with "clients who are severely addicted, need close supervision because of their criminal history to ensure public safety and have special needs for psychiatric care as well as substance abuse treatment."

Davis should see the great merit in these "problem-solving courts." Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) has asked the Legislature to restore drug court funding. If the governor does not, lawmakers should.

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