How many chances do drug criminals deserve?


Drug abuse is often seen as a personal issue, a choice that affects solely the user and their family. The impacts of addiction, however, extend far beyond the life of one individual.

Drugs are devastating to society as a whole, contributing to increasing rates of assaults, child abuseand intoxicated driving, promoting criminal activity, and consuming limited public funds. For these reasons, possession, use and distribution of illicit chemical substances are classified as drug offenses and may result in severe punishments.

The charges vary from state to state and depend on the type and quantity of the drug, whether it was intended for personal use or for sale and some aggravating circumstances like violent behavior or illegal possession of weapons. In California, penalties for simple possession for first offenders include fines up to $500 and between 15 and 180 days in jail. In contrast, Kentucky delivers much harsher punishments. First offenders may get a fine of up to $20,000 and 2 to 10 years in prison. In New York, drug criminals may get a prison sentence of 8 to 20 years for possession.

The effectiveness of imprisonment, however, is debatable. The problem of addiction is not addressed in jail, and it results in high rates of recidivism. Statistically, nearly 70% of former drug criminals return to drug use after being released because of impossibility to receive treatment during their time in prison. To combat this problem, drug courts were invented. Their main objectives are to assists first non-violent offenders, who are willing to work on their problem, with rehabilitation and increase their chances of successful reintegration into society.

Differences between jails and drug courts

At first glance, prisons and drug courts have the same goal of separating dangerous individuals from society for a certain amount of time. In reality, what the convicted have to face in jail is very different from what happens in drug court (click over here).

Imprisonment forces a drug abuser to go through withdrawal without medical assistance and doesn’t provide any form of therapy to overcome psychological dependence. This way, being drug-free is temporary since it’s practically impossible to successfully reach long-standing recovery without tackling the underlying issues that led to the development of the addiction in the first place. Ex-inmates also don’t have a chance to develop healthy coping mechanisms and learn correct ways to react to temptations. All of it makes them vulnerable to triggering situations and more likely to relapse.

Moreover, in the prison environment of physical and verbal violence, sexual assaults and tremendous psychological pressure, many people develop mental illnesses like anxiety, PTSD and depression or experience worsening of already existent conditions. At the same time, there is no psychiatric help available to control the inflicted damage. Most prisons only provide medications to highly unstable inmates, suffering from hallucinations or psychosis, and disregard more manageable issues like depression or phobias.

Drug court system, on the contrary, focuses on rehabilitation and ensuring that offenders don’t engage in criminal behavior after completing the program. Unlike jails, drug courts don’t seek full isolation. Instead, they encourage beneficial communication between patients and their families, assist with gaining parenting skills and provide job training or education. In combination with proper drug addiction treatment, it yields significantly greater results in prevention of recidivism than prisons produce.

Drug court model

The drug court system incorporates treatment and strict supervision. When an individual enrolls in a drug court program, they are monitored closely through unscheduled blood and urine tests, progress check-ups, and meetings. Offenders are also obliged to appear before a judge or drug court officials when called upon. Frequent reviews and control over the attendance of therapy sessions instill a strong sense of responsibility in patients, promoting remorse for their actions but also recognizing their ability to change and become productive members of society.

The main principles of drug courts are prevention, rehabilitation, and resources to enforce consequences for a lack of compliance. When an individual is found eligible for drug court, the initial screening is used to assess the offender’s needs and determine the best approach. Then, the patient is enrolled in a suitable rehabilitation program, where they remain under supervision until graduation. During the program, the person may receive incentives or penalties depending on their behavior, reaction to therapy and general progress. If the patient completes the program successfully, they may have the charges against them dropped or get a lesser penalty.

Types of drug courts

Overall, there are 11 types of drug courts in the US: adult, juvenile, family, veterans, DWI (driving while intoxicated), tribal, co-occurring disorders, re-entry, federal district, federal veterans, and campus. This variety is dictated by the need to account for specific group and age issues that may have gotten the offender involved in criminal activity.

For instance, juvenile drug court may apply slightly different methods in counseling than adult drug court. In addition to standard addiction therapies, teenagers are encouraged to commit to education and their hobbies, strengthen the bond with their families and friends, develop new community ties and learn the meaning of beneficial social interaction.

Benefits of drug courts

Both drug courts and prisons rely on behavioral modification to prevent offenders from committing crimes again. Jails utilize negative punishment that manifests in separation of threatening individuals from the rest of society, restricting the access to things they find valuable and seizing their privileges. While it does contribute to increased safety on the streets, it is a temporary effect. Negative punishment cannot efficiently change inmates’ way of thinking.

Drug courts work through positive reinforcement and positive punishment, and consequently, display higher rates of recovery and reduced level of recidivism among the graduates. Positive reinforcement is based on the encouragement of correct behaviors, while positive punishment introduces specific consequences for wrong actions. Individuals, enrolled in drug court programs may receive rewards when they manage to stay clean for the required period of time or display other desirable behaviors, and hence get inspired to complete the program and never return to drug abuse again. Similarly, punishments are sometimes necessary to help the patients acknowledge when they do something counterproductive to their recovery.

Pros and cons of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system are still subject to discussion. However, statistical data on the rates of recidivism among drug criminals indicates an indisputable correlation between availability of treatment and the likelihood that the convicts will repeat the offense. So far, drug courts offer the most efficient way to resolve arrests with regard for both the offenders’ and society’s well-being.


About the Author:

Thanush Poulsen is a Danish columnist, an expert in the field of the US criminal justice system.

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