- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

As proponents of criminal justice reform, we at the Justice Policy Institute agree with many of the points made in the column by Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, and actor Martin Sheen (“Drug courts crucial to criminal justice reform,” Commentary, June 29).

There is no quick fix to address prison overcrowding, but something must be done; this country’s over-reliance on incarceration is costing taxpayers $70 billion a year and does not make us any safer. In fact, it harms more people. This money can and should be used on more effective public safety strategies.

However, we must disagree with the authors on the efficacy of drug courts. Our own analysis of the research and that of the General Accountability Office both show that drug courts have not significantly reduced incarceration or the associated costs. Drug courts are expensive and are not a true alternative to incarceration. In fact, drug courts actually may increase the criminal justice involvement of people with drug problems. For all of those who succeed and graduate from drug court, there are many more who are ejected from drug court and may face longer sentences as a result.

The stories of drug court successes are moving; however, no one is telling the stories of people who are kicked out of drug court, often for the very relapses that are symptomatic of addiction, and thrown behind bars.


A more effective approach to reducing drug addiction is to expand access to treatment and other health interventions before people become involved in the justice system. About 7.8 million people in the United States self-report needing drug treatment, according to the 2009 U.S. National Survey of Drug Use and Health. This is more than the number of people facing lung, breast and prostate cancer combined. Currently, many people who want treatment can’t access it outside the criminal justice system. Studies show that drug treatment in the community can produce $20 in benefits for every dollar spent, compared to just $2 in benefits for drug courts and $7 for treatment in prison.

By improving access to community-based treatment, not only will we provide millions with the help they need and want to overcome their addictions, we’ll reduce incarceration costs, improve public safety and prevent people from having to suffer the negative consequences of a criminal record. Preventing crimes from occurring by providing front-end treatment is something we all can get behind.

NASTASSIA WALSH

Research associate

Justice Policy Institute

Washington