Monday, May 23, 2011

An unhealthy addiction to drug courts

Norman Reimer, the executive director of NACDL, says our newfound addiction to drug courts is harmful to the rights of our clients.

In the new issue of The Champion, the official publication of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Mr. Reimer argues that, in many cases, drug courts are worse for defendants than the regular courts.
"All too often, drug courts denigrate fundamental rights, extracting broad waivers as the cost of admission, and expose even the most well-intended to dire consequences, often worse than if they avoided drug court and simply pleaded guilty. They tend to place a premium on early guilty pleas, thereby insulating questionable law enforcement search and seizure practices, and provide a convenient means for prosecutors to shed defective cases. And some drug courts impede the attorney-client relationship and undermine an accused person's Sixth Amendment right to a vigorous defense. Worse, many drug courts operate without transparent admission criteria, and most bar eligibility to recidivists and those most in need of treatment. These factors tend to exacerbate racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system."
The problem with drug courts is that the criminal (in)justice system is not designed to provide solutions to public health issues (the same general problem exists with other specialty courts). Drug addiction is a medical issue - not a legal issue. Treating a medical condition through the auspices of the criminal (in)justice system is doomed to failure.

Medical professionals are trained to treat both the symptoms and the root cause of an illness. The goal of the medical profession is to cure the patient - or at least to ameliorate the condition. The doctors, nurses and other staff work together as a team to help the patient.

In the courthouse, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are not part of a "team." Prosecutors and defense attorneys are adversaries - we stake out our position and go from there. The prosecutor is looking for the best outcome for the state (or to get Friday afternoon off) while the defense attorney is fighting for the best outcome for his client. The judge sits as an impartial arbiter. No one is interested in resolving the medical condition behind the addiction -- the sole question is whether the state can prove up the elements of the charged offense.

The price for admission into the drug courts is a plea of guilty (generally) and a waiver of one's constitutional rights. We're all part of the same "team" now, remember? We're no longer adversaries. We'll work together to get the defendant through the process.

The process consists of a probation more restrictive than that offered in the regular court. The reward at the end of the tunnel is a dismissal - if the defendant can complete the program. Fall short of the court's expectations and you find yourself in a worse position than you would have been in had your case remained in the regular court.

On the other hand, Mr. Reimer points out that:
"Drug courts have helped many people. They have saved lives. They have probably saved hundreds of thousands of prison years. For clients facing a lengthy prison sentence, even a long shot at successful diversion must be considered. And therein lies the dilemma. As long as draconian penal policies drive America's drug policy, drug courts will thrive - irrespective of their flaws."
This country's attempt to treat drug addiction through the penal system has been an abject failure. It's time to take a new approach. People whose only "crime" is their addiction to drugs need to be in treatment, not in the courtroom. Treating a medical condition in an adversarial setting will never succeed and will only mean that another generation is lost in the criminal (in)justice system.

See also:

Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities, Justice Policy Institute (March 22, 2011)

Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use, Drug Policy Alliance (March 22, 2011)

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