Monday, October 27, 2008

Drug Courts Don't Work

Author: Morris Hoffman
Note: Morris Hoffman is a state trial judge in Denver and an adjunct
professor of law at the University of Colorado.
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


They Turn Neutral Judges into Cheerleaders, Substitute Parents.

There are only two problems with drug courts. They don't work, and they turn judges into intrusive agents of the Nanny State.

Independent evaluations of drug courts have been mixed, but many show that drug courts have no, or very little, impact on re-arrest recidivism. In Denver, for example, where I sit as a trial judge, an evaluation of our drug court done by the insiders who ran it claimed enormous reductions in recidivism. But when independent evaluators from the University of Denver looked at the program, they found that it reduced recidivism from a depressing 58% down to a still depressing 53%. Even that 5-point drop was well within the study's margin of error.

But it's not just that drug courts don't work, or don't work well. They have the perverse effect of sending more drug defendants to prison, because their poor treatment results get swamped by an increase in the number of drug arrests. By virtue of a phenomenon social scientists call "net-widening," the very existence of drug courts stimulates drug arrests.

Police are no longer arresting criminals, they are trolling for patients. Denver's drug arrests almost tripled in the two years after we began our drug court. At the end of those two years, we were sending almost twice the number of drug defendants to prison than we did before drug court.

Drug courts also turn judges from neutral magistrates into a combination of treatment cheerleader and substitute parent. When we try to treat addiction either as a simple disease or a matter of criminal choice, and drug users as moral inpatients, the only thing we accomplish is to create a dangerous and untrained judiciary that thinks it can intrude into the lives of citizens for as long as it takes to cure them.

As a state felony trial judge, I understand the scourge of drugs as well as anyone. But trying to cover up our national schizophrenia over drug policy with the veneer of ineffective, even counterproductive, drug courts does no good, except perhaps to make judges feel better when we send our treatment failures to prison.


Bitter Old Punk said...

I hate to say I told you so, but....

Deb Murphree/Alabama Politics said...

What are your ideas, Loretta, on Montgomery's Tracy McCooey? (I think I spelled that right). She is a judge that the newspapers discuss quite frequently concerning her willingness to work with young people when they get in trouble with drugs.