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Drug Courts Take Aim at the Drug Problem

Stephen A. Marcus and Rudolph A. Diaz More than ever, the nation’s leaders see eliminating drug abuse as a central element to curbing other social problems

n announcing a new federal drug policy on December 12, 1996, President Clinton said, “There is a huge connection between crime and prison populations and drug use that we are now strongly determined to break."

      In line with this, he told states they have until February 1998 to make remaining drug-free a condition both for release from jail and for remaining free on parole. Failure to do so can cost the states federal funds.

      “This law says to inmates, if you want out of jail, you must get off of drugs,” Mr. Clinton noted. “It says to parolees if you want to stay out of jail you must stay off drugs.”

      This message from the White House is good news to those who for years have pushed the concept of “drug courts” – courts dedicated to handling drug-related offenses. And it shows that drug court pioneers in Los Angeles were on the right track.

      Two of those in the vanguard of efforts to break the seemingly endless pattern of drug offense-prison-drug offense-prison are Rio Hondo Municipal Court Judge Rudolph A. Diaz and Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus.

      Through their work, special “drug courts” today hear drug-related cases in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Rio Hondo and Santa Monica, with the aim of ending the pattern of abuse.

      The Los Angeles County Drug Court started in downtown Los Angeles in May 1994 as a pilot project, presided over by Judge Marcus. At least 64 people have since graduated the year-long program, staying off drugs and free from crime. Five of the 64 – 7.8 percent – have been arrested again on misdemeanor charges, none involving drugs.

      A federally funded study released in 1996 showed that, nationwide, around 4 percent of those who finish drug court programs return to crime – compared with 45 percent or more of those found guilty of drug possession in regular courts who turn around and commit a similar crime within a few years.

      The drug court program includes periodic court monitoring and drug testing five days a week. It utilizes a carrot-and-stick approach.

      If an offender persists with the program and stays off drugs and away from crime, the drug offense will ultimately be wiped from the record. In the later stages of the program, he or she is given vocational training and assisted in finding a job. Those who don’t make the grade face a felony conviction and incarceration in state prison.

Ending the Plague of Drugs and Crime

      Years ago, Judge Diaz, while serving as president of the California Judges Association, dreamed of a way to help bring an end to the plague of drugs and related crime which afflicts Los Angeles and other cities.

      He studied innovative programs in Dade County, Florida, and elsewhere before bringing the drug court concept to Southern California.

      According to a U.S. Justice Department report, since the Dade County Drug Court program began in 1989, more than 7,000 drug users have taken part in it. Of all defendants who completed this program, only 11 percent were rearrested for a criminal offense in the year following graduation, whereas typical recidivism rates in the area range up to 60 percent.

      Judge Diaz is encouraged by the results and effectiveness of the California program, and is working to get it into operation in more communities. The Rio Hondo program opened in July 1994, presided over by Commissioner Jose Rodriguez. Additional drug courts later opened in Pasadena and Santa Monica.

      Judge Diaz told Freedom, “It costs $1,200 a year to keep someone on the drug court program; it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 a year to incarcerate them.”

      If a person is sent off to prison, he or she can sometimes obtain drugs there. When released, drug addiction is often still present and the person returns to criminal activities to support the habit.

      To complete the drug court program, on the other hand, one has to come off drugs. The person must test drug-free for a period of six months before graduation.

      Judge Diaz recalled one woman in such bad condition from drug abuse that she had to be taken to the hospital on her arraignment day. After seeing her later on the drug court program, he said, “You’d hardly know she had a drug problem.”

Salvaging Lives

      As described in literature published by the Rio Hondo Drug Court, “Drug Court philosophy recognizes that the optimum time for intervention and treatment is when the defendant is most highly motivated, i.e., when in custody or facing a state prison sentence.

      “By securing the defendant’s release from custody, and insisting on an immediate treatment plan, followed by early and frequent court-monitored progress reports, the program can achieve a period of sobriety and stabilization from which the defendant can begin the long-term process of treatment for the self-destructive tendencies of drug abuse, and for improving the defendant’s self-esteem.”

      Judge Marcus described the concept to Freedom as “tough love” – the individual is compelled to undergo treatment in his best interests.

      “The drug court judge must be part big brother, cheerleader and taskmaster,” he stated.

      Judge Marcus believes the program has two major effects. First, it changes the lives of those on the program themselves, as they end their addiction and become drug-free. Second, as he describes it, “These people will then go out and spread the gospel about being drug-free. This will help to keep other people from getting on drugs.”

      He points out that for every person you help, it affects others around them: spouse, mother, father, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, co-workers, neighbors and potential crime victims. For each addict it is different, but by salvaging one life, you are helping many more.

Expanding the Concept

      Federal funds have been instrumental in establishing drug courts, of which 100 currently operate in the country, with more planned. But while tens of millions of dollars have been spent on drug courts, tens of billions are consumed on other efforts to curb crime and drugs, with the main emphasis on prisons.

      “Many judges and law enforcement officials would like to see a significant amount of this money used for drug courts and other approaches that emphasize treatment, rather than punishment,” said Judge Diaz.

      Indeed, the drug court concept is one that holds out hope for the future. As noted by Judge Marcus, “There is a groundswell of support for expanding it throughout the country.”

      The 1994 California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment, an extensive study of 1,900 individuals, documented drug abuse treatment to be far more effective than incarceration in deterring future criminal activities.

      “Overall, treatment yields tremendous cost-benefit for every public and private dollar invested,” said Dr. Andrew Mecca, California drug czar. “The results of this study demonstrate that criminal activity dramatically declines with drug treatment. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation clearly is a good investment for taxpayers.”

      And, as mounting evidence shows, so are the drug courts.

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