Legal system is a lousy alternative to intervention for addicts

VancouverSun.com – news – U.S.-style drug courts not living up to their billing, according to think-tank
Sun March 26, 2011.    By Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun

Two new U.S. studies suggest special drug courts are far less effective than thought at combating addiction, reducing case backlogs and lowering the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders in jail.

The Justice Policy Institute and the Drug Policy Alliance have released reports that show the legal system is a lousy alternative to community intervention when dealing with addiction.

Drug courts were meant to decrease the number of people in prison for drug offences, help addicts kick their habits and improve public safety.

By helping non-violent offenders overcome their addictions and improve their social stability, the court programs hoped to reduce the criminal behaviour associated with substance abuse while eliminating backlogs.

Nice in theory, but not in practice.

Drug treatment in the community can reduce the potential for relapse by 8.3 per cent and produce $21 in benefits to victims and taxpayers in terms of reduced crime for every dollar spent, the authors of one paper say.

Treatment in prison produced only $7.74 in benefits, and drug courts less than $2 in benefits for every dollar spent.

The authors of both documents argue that a far more jaundiced eye is needed in evaluating the efficacy of the two-decades-old strategy.

Pioneered in Florida as a way of dealing with the cocaine-fuelled crime spree of the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug courts have not produced the desired results elsewhere and may exacerbate the problems they’re supposed to alleviate.

That’s a big alarm bell because across the U.S. now there are more than 2,500 drug courts processing 55,000 people annually.

They annually cost the states an estimated $138 million and Washington an additional $40 million.

Moreover, Canada picked up this idea from the U.S., opening our first drug court in Toronto in 1998.

Vancouver followed suit in December 2001, at first as a four-year experiment with funding assistance from the federal government. In 2006 the program was extended, with the feds and Victoria sharing the annual $1.5-million cost.

Now there are courts in Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg and Calgary, and the feds are kicking in $3.5 million a year across the country. As in the U.S., these courts deal with eligible cherry-picked offenders recommended by prosecutors who are charged with a minor offence; those who take part but screw up are bounced back to the regular court system.

In exchange for participating, the offenders are given expensive treatment and community support to address the constellation of social and health issues that has trapped them in the cycle of addiction and petty crime.

We don’t really know if this costly delivery of health and social services is good value for money.

Ottawa, Victoria and the office of the Chief Judge of the B.C. Provincial Court could not provide recent numbers or evaluations of the countrywide experiment.

The most recent data available about the Vancouver court is pre-2008 and indicates only 14 per cent of participants completed the program; the remainder (65 per cent) withdrew voluntarily or were discharged by the Crown, or (20 per cent) were asked to leave. Half (52 per cent) of all participants had new charges and about 24 per cent had new convictions within six months after their participation in the program ended.

Processing those who completed the program was supposedly more cost-efficient ($22,248) than the regular processing for a matched comparison group ($26,736).

But those numbers are suspect, and there was no attempt to pose the questions the American researchers raise.

These courts may be a better option than incarceration, but south of the border they also have unexpectedly widened the net of those who are arrested.

They are certainly no panacea.

Although they were intended to reduce backlogs and drug offences, in fact police busts for petty $10 and $20 sales increased.

In Denver, for example, the number of drug filings tripled in the two years following the implementation of drug courts.

At the same time, addicts desperate to get into a recovery program were willing to be busted because there were few or no addiction services available in the community. (Sounds like the Lower Mainland!) Typically these poor souls got kicked out of the drug-court stream when they failed a urine or blood test and ended up back in normal court, getting hit with a harsher sentence.

There are more than 12 times as many people incarcerated in America for drug offences as in the 1980s.

Drug-court supporters are quick to offer heart-rending and very real anecdotal success stories that create the illusion something good is happening. I suspect, however, that if, as in the U.S., they were made available, the numbers, recidivism rates, relapse statistics and the extra cost of the legal system would dispel that rosy emotional fog.

Read the Justice Policy Report at justicepolicy.org/research/2217

Read the Drug Policy Report at drug-policy.org/library/drugcourts.cfm

imulgrew@vancouversun.com

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