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December 9, 1997

An Alternative to "War on Drugs":
The Drug Court

by Cecelia Formichella and Joe Formichella

Remember the War on Drugs? By the end of the 1980s, law enforcement and judicial officials across the country were seriously considering surrendering the War. The number of drug- related cases increased 229 percent during the Reagan era battle plan of interdiction and denial. In Mobile County alone 3,000 drug-related cases were opened between January, 1990 and December, 1991. That is an average of 1,500 new cases a year or 125 a month -- more than four new cases every day. As a consequence of this explosion in criminal cases driven by new drug arrests, resources were being siphoned away from civil and other court divisions just to manage the drug caseload. Finally in 1989, judicial leadership and the public defender in Dade County Florida turned to community leaders and treatment agencies for an alternative approach to the "War on Drugs." Together they developed a diversion and treatment program for drug offenders: the Drug Court. The first program began in Miami, Florida in 1989.

In 1992, Mobile County's "Drug Court," a project of the 13th Circuit Court of Alabama, began operation. This program diverts drug users from the traditional criminal justice process into a drug treatment program. The logic of the program is to attack the problem of crime at one of its sources: an underlying dependence on drug use. An evaluation study of the program's effectiveness has been completed by three faculty members at the University of South Alabama: David Johnson, David Bowers, and one of the co-authors of this story, Cecelia Formichella. The findings indicate that individuals who graduate from Mobile's Drug Court program have lower rates of rearrest than those who do not receive treatment.

Since 1993, Mobile's program has had 215 such graduates. Comparing Drug Court graduates to those who did not participate in the program shows that at six months, nonparticipants had rearrest rates of 41 percent whereas graduates had rearrest rates of around 12 percent for all crimes. For drug-related crimes, nonparticipants had rearrests rates at six months, that were three times higher than were those of Drug Court graduates -- 19.5 percent as opposed to 5.9 percent.

John Goldkamp, professor of criminal justice at Temple University, sees the Miami Drug Court as something more like a team approach between the prosecutor and defender, and views treatment specialists as vital to the process. In addition, the judge, the prosecutor, the defender and other agency staff are given training in addictive behaviors. As a consequence, the Court allows for lapses during the treatment process so long as they do not involve serious criminal behavior.

David Thomas, director of Mobile's Drug Court program, says the Drug Court has a two- fold goal: to provide a local drug treatment program for individuals who are nonviolent offenders, and to get these individuals off drugs and back into the workforce. "We want them to be taxpayers and not tax burdens," Thomas said.

Defendants are selected for possible admission to Mobile's drug court program by referrals from prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges or others in the judicial system. To be eligible, defendants must not have been convicted of a violent crime, nor had significant participation in drug trafficking. They must agree to plead guilty to their charged crime prior to beginning treatment. The state agrees that the conviction will be "noll prossed" -- never entered into the formal record -- if the offender successfully completes treatment.

The treatment program, which is designed to last 12 months for the typical offender, is conducted on an outpatient basis. Treatment is divided into three phases: Assessment and Evaluation, Intensive Outpatient Treatment, and Transition and Aftercare. During Phase 1 of treatment, the offender's treatment needs are assessed, including the nature and scope of his or her dependence on drugs. Other psychosocial needs are also identified in this phase. Urine tests for evidence of drug use are performed daily during Phase 1, which normally lasts two weeks. A treatment plan is developed, and the offender immediately begins participation in individual and group counseling, and acupuncture services are available to assist in the control of urges for drug use. But Thomas says that "only around 10 percent of clients are currently using acupuncture for treatment of their drug dependency." Acupuncture, like counseling, is available in each of the phases of treatment.

During Phase 2, which is scheduled to last 14 weeks, intensive interventions are continued. Regular urinalysis, individual and group counseling, and acupuncture continue. Participation in educational sessions is required. By the end of the eighth week of treatment, the offender is expected to have become substance free, and negative drug tests are expected throughout the remainder of treatment.

Thomas feels that drug testing is "very important to the success of the program. Individuals who test positive are not allowed to move on to the next phase of treatment." Relapses during the early phases, however, are common, and repeated positive tests can lead to a court date to determine continued eligibility in the program. Defendants who are not able to achieve a pattern of "clean urines" are disciplined, usually involving some jail time. As a last recourse, the judge may sentence the offender for the original crime that led to participation in the Drug Court. The judge, Thomas says, determines who qualifies for the program and who may continue in the program once admitted. The judge is also responsible for sentencing those who do not comply.

The foci of Phase 3 include maintaining sobriety, development of life skills, and vocational training and placement. Substance abuse treatment continues, as does random drug testing. Participation in educational programs, including GED and community college course work, is expected for those with educational needs. Placement in jobs is a key component of this phase. Work performance is monitored. If the participant achieves sobriety and reasonable stability in terms of educational or vocational performance, then he or she is eligible for graduation at the conclusion of this eight-month phase.

As with any drug treatment program, some individuals will not complete the program. Drug Court clients who miss three treatments are declared AWOL, and the judge puts out a writ for their arrest. Their length and type of sentence is determined by the number of prior arrests and the circumstances surrounding the case. Individuals that test positive on routine drug screens are given opportunities to achieve sobriety. If they do not, they may be placed in a residential treatment facility; if this fails, the individual is jailed.

The benefits for both the community and the individual are numerous. With fewer drug- related cases, courts can focus their attention on more serious criminal cases. Potentially, there are savings to the state in terms of defense attorneys, grand jury indictments, investigating officers, and probation officers. Finally, a successful drug court treatment program may result in alleviating some of the over-crowded conditions of jails and prisons with fewer drug-related rearrests.

For individuals, participation in the Drug Court treatment program allows them the possibility to become drug-free and decreases their likelihood of being rearrested. Also, they acquire education and work skills that can lead to their becoming contributing members of society. This component of mutual responsibility is built into the program and is one of the unique features of the Drug Court. This is one of the reasons that Mr. Thomas feels the Drug Court is a viable alternative to jail time. "It costs less to treat drug offenders than to incarcerate them." The Drug Court clients must pay 100 dollars a month for treatment. Before the individual can graduate from the program, this amount ($1,200) must be paid in full.

Nationwide, there is evidence that drug courts are increasingly being used to treat drug offenders. The General Accounting Office estimates that at least 37 different municipalities have Drug Courts in operation across the US, and many other cities are considering the concept of diversion and treatment versus incarceration for drug offenders. A concrete measure of the success of programs like Dade County's Felony Drug Court and Mobile's Drug Court is that federal grant money to support court supervised treatment was written into the landmark 1994 Crime Act. A subtler measure of success of the Drug Court movement is the initiative of community and judicial leaders who have worked to bring the program to realization in cities such as Mobile. Their initiative both provides a positive model for Drug Court participants and keeps the program growing.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL