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  • Joshua Couce

Drug Court: Changing the Face of Our Criminal Justice System

For over thirty years, the War on Drugs has had massive repercussions for the United States. It has brought about racial injustice, mass incarceration, denial of social benefits for drug offenders, and a lack of treatment . However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With more than half of federal inmates incarcerated for drug offenses and a prison population hovering around two million people, changes need to be made. In the last decade, drug courts have revolutionized how the criminal justice system addresses drug offenses through a hybrid of highly intensive, supervised treatment programs and judicial sanctions.

There are approximately 3,400 drug court systems in the United States and with three of every four drug court graduates remaining arrest-free for at least two years after leaving the program. The mission of drug courts is to provide treatment programs and a pathway for nonviolent criminal offenders to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. Drug courts diminish criminal activity and drug use through systematic and highly specialized team process. This consists of collaborative efforts between judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community-based organizations, and drug counselors who assign tasks for participants to complete, hold participants accountable for their actions through sanctions, and reward participant for meaningful progress. All of these individuals work together in creating a standardized assessment and task assignment system for drug offenders focusing on sanctions for non-compliant behavior and incentives to encourage recovery goals. Nationwide, this ongoing process has saved taxpayers $3,000 to $13,000 per offender, helped offenders become more productive members of society, reunified families twice as fast as the standard judicial process, and has reduced crime rates and recidivism.

New Jersey has one of the most comprehensive drug courts in the nation that focuses around treatment, accountability, and sanctions and incentives for participants over the course of several years. This drug court system has been referred to as one that every state can learn from because of its effectiveness in combating drug addiction and providing a second chance for addicts. The process consists of four phases: 1) Stabilization – Residential or Intensive Outpatient Treatment, 2) Positive Change, 3) Relapse Prevention, and 4) Commencement. New Jersey Drug Courts provide mandatory treatment for participants and skills to avoid relapse, eliminate the environment that induced drug use and addiction, and assist participants in obtaining employment. New Jersey Drug Courts have had remarkable results, with 88% of participants being employed upon graduation, 96% of participants testing negative for drugs over the course of twelve months with over 15,000 drug tests being conducted monthly, a 79.3% retention rate throughout the entire program, and less than 20% of graduates being arrested within three years of graduating.

Drug courts create a way to effectively combat substance abuse rather than the "revolving door" syndrome of incarcerating the same individuals time and time again for nonviolent drug offenses. For the police and prosecutors, drug court programs have significantly enhanced the credibility of law enforcement and have allowed prosecutors and law enforcement to devote more time to serious crime and criminal offenders. For Judges, drug courts allow treatment to be the number one focus, but also leaves the door open for judicial sanctions if drug court activities and protocols are not followed by the participant. A further benefit for all involved in the drug court system is the opportunity, over the course of the several year program, to help offenders reintegrate into society as substance free citizens. While many still want to ‘throw the book’ at all drug offenders, nonviolent drug offenders should be given the opportunity to take back their lives with the help of those in our criminal justice system. With over one million people being arrested annually for simple drug possession, criminal law practitioners should embrace drug courts to help give these people a second chance at life.


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