No Exit: Many Drug Courts Don’t Reduce Re-Arrest Rates

Posted on 19 December 2011

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli
Drug Policy Alliance

As I wrote last week, California’s counties have recently been given more authority (under AB 109, or “public safety realignment”) to develop their own policy responses to drug law violations. Given that drug offenses account for a huge proportion of all people involved in the criminal justice system at the county level, this is as big a challenge as an opportunity.

This isn’t just about reducing the number of people behind bars for a drug law violation, but about keeping them out of the criminal justice system all together – and about getting them out once they’re in.

That’s why counties shouldn’t ignore a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which finds that only 18 of 32 drug courts – or just over 50% – showed statistically significant reductions in recidivism among participants. That is, almost half of drug courts do not reduce re-arrest rates of their participants below the rates of people who went through the normal criminal justice process.

The GAO’s findings echo those of the five-year Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE), the longest and largest ever study of drug courts. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, MADCE recently reported a re-arrest rate for drug court participants that was 10 percentage points below that of the comparison group, but that the difference was not statistically significant. This means that the study effectively found no difference in re-arrest rates between the groups, as the decrease may be the result of chance.

This is significant because drug courts – criminal justice programs that seek to reduce drug use through mandated treatment and close judicial oversight – are supposed to help people address their drug problems and successfully exit the criminal justice system. But research shows that drug courts aren’t reliably doing this.

The real problem with drug courts, however, is that they attempt to treat drug use as a health issue, but they cannot because they are required to enforce laws criminalizing drug use – and therefore punishment trumps treatment every time. As a result, drug courts have actually made the criminal justice system more punitive toward addiction – not less.

For example, people who struggle the most with a drug problem are more likely than those without a drug problem to be kicked out of a drug court and incarcerated. Although relapse is a common and predictable occurrence during treatment, drug courts often punish people who suffer a relapse by pulling them out of treatment and putting them in jail for several days or weeks. By contrast, in a medical setting, relapse calls for intensified treatment.

Many Californians are addicted to prescription drugs like pain killers, but no one thinks the solution is to lock them up.  The solution should be the same for people addicted to similar drugs that just aren’t made by a pharmaceutical company:  treat the addiction.

Counties can and should work to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system due to drug problems. That means offering high quality community-based treatment early and often (and actually making it accessible and appropriate). It also means making drug possession offenses a low law enforcement priority and, wherever possible, connecting individuals with services directly – outside of the criminal justice system.

A collaborative effort in Seattle, which includes law enforcement, defense attorneys and social services among others, this year rolled out a pre-booking diversion program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) that aims to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system for a low-level drug law violation by providing linkages to community-based treatment and support services. In San Diego, the police department has calculated significant cost savings to the local government through its Serial Inebriate Program (SIP), which provides treatment and housing to the city’s most costly individuals suffering from alcoholism and chronic homelessness.

These are the types of innovative programs at the local level that can help stem the flow of people entering the criminal justice system for a drug problem in the first place.

Counties should reserve drug courts for cases involving offenses against person or property that are linked to a drug use disorder, while improving drug court practices and providing other options for people convicted of drug law violations. They should support work at the state level to reduce the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor to give themselves greater flexibility in responding to drug law violations. And they should wisely invest their resources to bolster their public health systems, including harm reduction and treatment programs, to more effectively and cost-effectively address problematic drug use.


Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is deputy state director in Southern California with the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs, and was a contributor to DPA’s Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use.

Understand that under realignment, ALL parolees are required to serve their violation time, which has been reduced from a max of 1 year to 90 days, in County Jail. That is ALL parolees - child molesters, gang members, murderers and rapists included. These are the people being released early into our communities and without consequence.

Some of those who are released early are committing more serious crimes. 39-year-old James Whitaker had been arrested for a series of burglaries. He was released after just a few hours in the Fresno County jail. Four days later, he allegedly held up a bank.

Earlier in the week the story was Tino Tufono – Fresno’s Number Two car thief. He’d been in and out of the jail the past few months. He was most recently released November 28th due to overcrowding. A week later, he allegedly shot a man to death.

And Brown just cancelled a contract to house prisoners out of state, which will result in 10,000 prisoners being returned to our Prisons, and ultimately our county probation departments and jails. All this after only 2 months or realignment, and tens of thousands slated to be transferred to our counties in the next couple of years. Realignment is not a sustainable system, and must be repealed or drastically amended sooner than later. Or things will only get worse with time.

There are people committing crimes every day who have never been in prison, and are not on parole. If someone is going to commit a crime it does not make one difference whether they did their parole violation in a state prison or a county jail and you know it. Parole is a failed system and the game is over...California taxpayers are not buying the lie that somehow putting someone on parole and returning them to prison a few times a year for a positive drug test or missing a meeting with their agent is somehow making anyone safer. It was nice while it lasted, lots of good paying jobs..too bad state parole didn't see the writing on the wall before it was too late.