This post was written by Daria Brown, a graduating senior at Georgia College and State University and the President of Georgia College’s Mock Trial team. Daria will begin her first year of law school in the fall of 2022.

Addicts don’t belong in prison. And drug courts are not a proper solution.

In recent years, drug courts have proliferated in many states as an alternative to incarceration for low-level drug offenders. Ostensibly predicated on a rehabilitative rather than punitive paradigm, drug courts strive to provide low-level drug offenders with treatment in lieu of incarceration.

But upon closer examination, drug courts aren’t the solution. In fact, they are part of the problem because they retain a punitive approach to treating drug offenders and perpetuate precisely the type of moral blameworthiness—and lack of empathy—that often plagues those who struggle with addiction, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for such individuals to lead fully recovered lives.

This article proposes a new approach that advocates for a truly rehabilitative, rather than retributive model, and that attempts to replace condemnation with compassion.

By way of background, as a response to the overwhelming number of arrests for minor drug law violations in the 1980s and 1990s, drug courts were created to serve as an alternative correctional — and rehabilitative — approach for defendants charged with low-level drug crimes, such as possession of marijuana. And these courts have experienced some degree of success, as many individuals — who would have otherwise been incarcerated — have recovered from their addictions and proceeded to live productive lives.

The truth, however, is that these stories are the exception, not the rule. And the inconvenient truth is that drug courts, while well-intended, are fundamentally flawed for several reasons. Most prominent among them is that drug court programs misunderstand the nature of addiction, unjustifiably retain punitive elements that reflect stigmatization of addicted offenders and fail to provide the type of treatment protocols that are essential to maximizing positive outcomes for offenders. Those flaws are detailed below, followed by principled solutions that will enhance the efficacy and fairness with which we treat individuals who struggle with addiction.

I.    The Problems

    A.    The individuals responsible for implementing and overseeing treatment of addicted offenders have a limited understanding of addiction. 

Prosecutors and judges are given complete discretion over who is referred to drug court and which treatment is most appropriate for each individual. For example, prosecutors are given the power to “cherry-pick” participants who they believe will be successful in the program, and often intentionally exclude precisely those defendants who need the most help, namely, those with a history of addiction.[1] As such, offenders who are in dire need of treatment often receive no treatment at all and are instead relegated to a prison where they routinely decompensate.

This should come as no surprise. After all, why should prosecutors and judges, who have no education and experience in addiction or psychology, have the power to determine which defendants receive treatments, and the authority to set the parameters of that treatment? It is equivalent to permitting a cardiologist to determine whether a patient suffers from bipolar disorder. If drug courts are serious about providing efficacious and meaningful treatment to those offenders who need it, they should not entrust decision-making authority with individuals who know nothing of the problem that drug courts are designed to treat.

    B.    Drug courts strive to rehabilitate yet retain a punitive model that decreases the likelihood of successful treatment.  

You can’t scare people into recovery. It’s like a parent telling a child that, if they continue to listen to a certain type of music, they will be grounded for six months. That might work in the short term. It utterly fails in the long term. Drug courts suffer from this problem. Put differently, if you are committing to a rehabilitative model, you have to be truly committed to that model.

Indeed, drug courts have adopted two intrinsically contradictory models which undermine their efficacy: the disease model (rehabilitative) and the rational actor model (punitive). The disease model recognizes that drug use for addicted individuals is compulsory and not morally blameworthy. Conversely, the rational actor model states that any given decision-maker is a rational person who is able to evaluate positive and negative outcomes to make the most rational decision—and thus would attach moral culpability to drug addiction.

Unfortunately, drug court programs embrace these contradictory models and, in so doing, impede treatment efficacy and, ultimately, an offender’s prospects for a full recovery. To be sure, in a drug court treatment program, an individual is given treatment based on the underlying assumption that they have an addiction, but if they fail to comply with all treatment protocols, they are threatened with punishment, including incarceration.

These models cannot function together because the rational actor model misunderstands the nature of addiction and the road to a successful recovery. Indeed, recovery is a difficult path, where setbacks and relapses are often common. Failing to understand the turbulent road to recovery forces addicts to attempt recovery under the shadow of shame and condemnation, and when a setback occurs, treatment is withdrawn and punishment, including incarceration, implemented. This is a prescription for failure.

    C.    For the participants who could benefit most from treatment, failure is far too common.

For individuals who struggle with addiction—and are selected to participate in a drug court program—in most cases, they must plead guilty to their charges as a condition of their referral. And if an individual fails to complete the program, a person may not amend their guilty plea. Therefore, these people lose both the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser offense and receive support services essential to their recovery. Furthermore, in some instances, a person struggling with addiction may face a longer sentence than they otherwise would have if they hadn’t been referred to drug court in the first instance when considering the days or weeks of incarceration they endured during the program as punishment for relapse or other minor infractions plus their full sentence decided by the judge upon removal from the program.

This troubling dynamic begs the question: what is the purpose of drug courts? Do they reflect a principled commitment to treating the issues underlying addiction? Do they focus on maximizing positive outcomes for offenders, many of whom are from marginalized communities—which requires tolerance of and treatment for setbacks, including relapses? Or do they reflect a half-hearted attempt to provide treatment that, upon the first hint of non-compliance, leads to incarceration and cessation of all treatment efforts? In many instances, it is the latter. And that makes drug courts rehabilitative in name only and restorative in theory but not in fact.

These are only a few of the major issues involved in drug court programs, but they demonstrate a fundamental need for a more suitable solution to address addiction, remove stigmatization, and provide meaningful rehabilitation. Below are three policy recommendations that would improve the efficacy and fairness and drug treatment in the criminal justice system.

II.    The Solutions   

    A.    Trained psychologists and psychiatrists — not prosecutors and judges — should evaluate all criminal defendants who struggle with drug addiction. 

Many drug users struggle with serious and life-threatening addictions. And many of these people also suffer from mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, potentially using illegal drugs to self-medicate. For this and other reasons, trained psychologists and psychiatrists should evaluate and recommend the proper course of treatment for all defendants charged with drug crimes. These experts, unlike prosecutors and judges, understand addiction and mental illness, and thus can recommend and implement individualized treatment that will have the highest likelihood of success. In many instances, such treatment will likely include administering medication and providing cognitive behavioral therapy, as both psychiatric and psychological treatment increase substantially the likelihood of recovery.

Furthermore, rather than being forced to plead guilty to a charged offense, the person should be granted a continuance for their case for a period of time deemed appropriate for treatment based on a psychiatrist’s and psychologist’s recommendations. Additionally, if a person is financially disadvantaged and unable to afford the medication prescribed and treatment recommended, the government should supply aid necessary to cover these costs. After all, if the criminal justice system is truly committed to rehabilitation, then it should put its money where its mouth is—figuratively and literally.

Now, if an offender struggling with addiction or mental illness is charged with a violent crime, the offender’s psychiatrist and psychologist should include in their assessment what effect, if any, the underlying disorders may have on the defendant’s culpability. Furthermore, if a defendant pleads or is adjudged guilty, the court should consider these assessments as mitigating factors at the sentencing stage. This will result in truly individualized sentences that reflect moral blameworthiness more accurately and result in less severe sentences more frequently.

Finally, this approach would prevent prosecutors—who have no expertise in understanding or treating addiction or mental illness—from cherry-picking which defendants are worthy of treatment, from imposing arbitrary barriers to accessing such treatment, and judges from implementing treatment programs that have minimal, if any, likelihood of success.

    B.    The stigma and discrimination directed to individuals struggling with addiction and/or mental illness must end now. 

Individuals who struggle with addiction or mental illness should never be stigmatized or marginalized. These people are forced to carry around society’s label of “otherness,” and that “otherness” leads to being denied admission to universities, rejected from employers, and ostracized by community members. This is wrong.  Giving people a second chance reflects empathy and understanding, which is often lacking from even the most passionate advocates of social justice.

Indeed, when jobs and education opportunities are gate-kept from individuals simply because they have a past, it perpetuates the cycle of recidivism and relapse that is so common in cases of substance abuse. Most importantly, it dehumanizes people who have fought valiantly to overcome addiction and adversity and disregards the inherent human dignity that all humans possess. Simply stated, we need to recognize that all humans are flawed and that, ultimately, we all share similar struggles. Treating people with compassion is essential to achieving justice in a meaningful and transformative manner.

     C.    Implement community-based solutions that place individuals in the best position to achieve permanent recovery. 

One of the major issues with drug court programs and incarceration is the lack of support upon reentry into society, which often prevents individuals from achieving the level of financial and social stability necessary to avoid reoffending.

Community-based solutions can help to facilitate an individual’s transition into society and provide the support necessary to prevent relapse or recidivism. And these solutions can encompass a wide range of possibilities. For example, volunteers in the community may be granted tax breaks if they agree to mentor these individuals and help them adjust to their new life and assist their mentees in signing up for or getting involved in other community-based solutions.

Other community-based solutions may include granting the recently recovered person a lifetime membership to a community center such as the YMCA and contracting with local businesses to offer employment to individuals after successful completion of treatment. These businesses could receive tax breaks for their cooperation and continued dedication to affording opportunities to individuals who suffered from—and overcame—addiction or mental illness. Such an approach can help individuals to achieve stability and autonomy and to take responsibility for their lives and happiness. It also reflects the belief that giving people an opportunity to start anew is a chance worth taking.

Ultimately, current drug court programs, while well-intentioned, are not well-designed. The problem is that addiction and mental illness are largely misunderstood, often mistreated, and unnecessarily maligned. Dispensing with these stereotypes, which result in marginalization and discrimination, is the predicate to implementing meaningful and principled treatment programs. Most importantly, recognizing that people deserve a second chance, that morality has no place in addiction discourse, and that punishment is frequently devoid of purpose, is the first step to enacting reforms that respect human dignity and that reflect empathy for those that the criminal justice system has unjustly relegated to inconvenient enigmas.

 

[1] See Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Courts Are Not The Answer: Toward A Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use, (March 2011), available at: https://drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/Drug%20Courts%20Are%20Not%20the%20Answer_Final2.pdf