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April 19, 2009

Talk of drug courts, but not major policy changes, in drug war from Obama team

This big story from CNN on the latest drug war talk coming from the Obama team reveals that drug courts, but not any moves toward legalization, appears to be focus on the new Administration:

The man Obama picked to be the new "drug czar," Gil Kerlikowske, has made it clear that the United States is going to do a better job of treating addicts to try to reduce the demand for narcotics. Kerlikowske, 59, is a military veteran with 36 years of law enforcement experience. The drug czar oversees an agency that sets the country's drug-control strategy.

The White House and Congress want to see more drug courts, and increased funding for the program 250 percent in the spending bill signed in March....

Vice President Joe Biden stressed the importance of drug courts and prisoner re-entry programs when he announced Kerlikowske's position in March, saying they "can serve as the light at the end of the tunnel, of a very long, long dark tunnel, for those who are stuck in the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration."...

The White House has listened to those who say legalizing marijuana will pull the rug from under the violent cartels in Mexico and boost the U.S. economy, but that option is not on the table. Asked Thursday if that is something realistic, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano quickly responded, "No, it is not."

Sixty percent of drug criminals sent to prison re-offend, compared to 17 percent of graduates of drug court, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  Drug policy experts like those numbers, but say the nation needs more treatment options.

"For individuals who don't have the resources, don't have public health insurance, can't afford it themselves, the single best way that they can access treatment is to get arrested," said Ryan King, a policy analyst with the Sentencing Project.  "And that's wrong.  What we need to do is make sure for every American that is abusing drugs and wants to stop, that they have the resources made available to them, regardless of whether they can afford them."

April 19, 2009 at 08:31 AM | Permalink


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This scheme achieves the aims of legalization, including that of leaving alone people who caused no harm, not even to themselves. Yet, it controls the potentially catastrophic consequences of having cigarette and alcohol class damage from many additional substances.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 19, 2009 2:03:25 PM

"Sixty percent of drug criminals sent to prison re-offend, compared to 17 percent of graduates of drug court"

Ah, but the defendants in drug courts are not your average offender. If I can select who I want in my treatment program I can produce "promising results" as well.

The devil is in the details.

Posted by: | Apr 19, 2009 4:43:41 PM

Drug court is a prison alternative and their clients are not defendants. If they had not been placed in drug court they would have been committed or revoked to prison. No doubt CNN reduced what they had to say about recidivism to one sentence which I agree was misleading (probably an unintended error on the part of CNN).

OTOH drug court is very expensive because they need such a large staff (even larger if it is also a mental health court) and they use every relevant assessment instrument in choosing clients to keep costs down. Your point about selection is well taken but it is a cost control tactic rather than an attempt to "cook the books".

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 19, 2009 7:31:25 PM

Though you have to admit a 17% re-offense rate in a program that picks and chooses its participants seems pretty high to me.

Posted by: MarkM | Apr 19, 2009 11:44:43 PM

I was surprised that it was 17% I expected it to be about 30%. Even the drug courts that do not specifically include the mentally ill will have some mentally ill clients. If there is no intervention the return rate for mentally ill prisoners is over 90%.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 20, 2009 6:03:29 AM

They are defendants, not clients. The court reserves the right to reinstate the original charge and send them back to traditional adjudication. They are there because they committed a crime, not because they enrolled in a program.

The selection criteria is all about choosing who will "maximize" success in the program. That's not entirely bad - it makes sense to focus on those who will benefit most from treatment. But the belief that drug courts are applicable to the broader range of drug offenders (and that the reported success rate is generalizable to them) is misplaced at best and down right misleading at worst.

Posted by: | Apr 20, 2009 9:05:48 AM

They are technically defendants, but they should be clients. Speaking as someone who used to work as a policy coordinator for a drug court, I like the programs--I think they're better than the alternative (no treatment). But I don't see why the court needs to be involved at all. Decriminalize drugs and continue to staff treatment centers, but save $$ on reduced jail & court costs. That would be a better alternative to our current situation.

And I can testify that the 17% recidivism rate might be "right" but its a figure that's really variable around the country, depending on what kind of county you're in, how good the treatment is and how you're conducting an evaluation (6 mos later? 1 yr later? recidivism = arrest, or conviction?) all of those factors can change the figure, and more realistic figures I've seen are 25-35%.

Posted by: AP | Apr 20, 2009 11:01:37 AM

Obama's clearly an improvement over Bush.

That said, it's becoming increasingly difficult to fight the feeling Obama's just another politician (clinging, grasping power/celebrity junkie)...not the audacious architect of a "new way of doing business in Washington" some of us idealists allowed ourselves to hope for.

Tinkering at the margins of prohibition all but guarantees the failed drug war will live on to squander more money and ruin more lives.

Posted by: John K | Apr 20, 2009 11:02:58 AM

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