Making Government Work

Alternative Courts Can Transform Offenders, Not Just Punish Them

December 4, 2014
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Alternative Courts Can Transform Offenders, Not Just Punish Them
Eligible drug-addicted persons may be sent to Drug Court instead of traditional justice system case processing. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Problem-solving courts offer a new approach to criminal justice.

After being pulled over for running a stop sign, Heather Bateman was rummaging around looking for her driver’s license when something else popped out of her purse — her crystal meth pipe.

The policeman at her car window spotted the drug paraphernalia, and Bateman soon found herself in handcuffs.

In a strange twist of events, getting arrested was actually the answer to her prayers.

For months, Bateman had been asking God for some kind of help, as her life spiraled out of control. She was using meth every day. She’d lost her nursing license. She and her 7-year-old daughter were homeless. “It was the lowest part of my life,” she says.

Later, at the courthouse, Bateman was asked if she’d like to take part in an alternative court program — a drug court. “I said, ‘Absolutely. I want to get help.’”

Instead of receiving probation or a prison sentence, Bateman underwent three years of supervised treatment in the St. Paul, Minn., drug court. Her urine was tested randomly to see if she was still using, and she was required to attend treatment and counseling groups. Batemen regularly attended court, where the judge didn’t just issue orders, but asked her what was going on in her life, in the same way a social worker might do.

It wasn’t a straight road, but Bateman found her way to sobriety, regained her nursing license, got married, bought a house and rebuilt her life. But none of this would’ve happened, she says, if she’d simply been sent to jail for drug possession.

Since the first drug court was created 25 years ago in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, the concept has proliferated. Today, there are more than 2,800 specialized courts nationwide that work with juveniles, veterans, the mentally ill, drunk drivers and prostitutes to change their lives after being arrested for minor offenses.

These so-called “problem-solving” courts are born from a recognition that traditional methods of criminal punishment are ineffective. Judges who are frustrated with the existing system and tired of seeing the same defendants appear before them again and again often lead alternative courts, which are designed to address the root causes of the arrest-imprisonment-and-re-arrest cycle.

Alternative courts are growing because they work. Studies have shown that drug courts can reduce recidivism rates by an average of 8 to 13 percent. Additionally, drug court graduates have fewer relapses than offenders who are simply given probation or prison time, according to a 2012 national study financed by the National Institute of Justice.

Most important, the turn toward problem-solving courts may be part of a larger change in the American criminal justice system: leaning toward treatment rather than retribution.

FINDING A BETTER WAY

“The traditional response of sending people to prison or placing them on probation was clearly proving ineffective, if the goal is causing people to change their behavior,” says Associate Circuit Judge Alan Blankenship, reflecting on the beginnings of the drug court he presides over in Stone County, Mo. Blankenship helped start the court 10 years ago, during a methamphetamine epidemic there.

“We realized that imprisoning people is extraordinarily expensive and the environment is not conducive to recovery,” he explains. Prison sentences for drug-addicted defendants “caused more harm and worsened public safety,” he says. “People got worse instead of better.”

Drug courts often employ a multiphase approach to treatment. Initially, defendants are closely monitored, required to undergo frequent drug testing and may have to attend an intensive treatment program, counseling or group therapy. Offenders are assigned a team that might include a probation officer, a social worker and a drug counselor. The group addresses not only treatment needs, but also issues like housing, employment and family reunification.

“The team is going to work with you every step of the way so that you’re not just clean, but stable,” says Chris Deutsch, director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

As defendants accumulate sober time and meet their obligations, drug tests become less frequent and court monitoring loosens. When offenders have shown themselves to be stable and clean, they graduate from the program.

Throughout the process, offenders are required to come to court regularly for conversations with the judge — interactions that look very different from traditional courtroom exchanges. Alternative court judges ask offenders personal questions about family, work and stresses in their life. And they offer praise and encouragement, even applause.

Judge Blankenship says he often says things you might not often hear in a courtroom: “You’re doing great. I appreciate what you’re doing. I’m proud of you.”

“They have this dialogue back and forth and it’s an amazing departure from the way criminal justice interactions normally go,” says Deutsch.

Just a slight shift in approach can have a dramatic impact. Blankenship recalls one defendant who told him, “ ‘I’ve been in many courts in many parts of the country and you are the first judge to look me in the eye and call me by my name. You don’t know how powerful that is.’ ”

However, if offenders are not meeting their obligations, if they are missing meetings or testing positive for drug use, they can be subject to sanctions like community service, extra group counseling sessions or even a few days in jail.

EFFECTIVE & EFFICIENT

When people complete the program, which can take anywhere from a year to several years, they don’t often end up back in court, Blankenship says. The latest data from Stone County indicates that, five years after finishing the program, 13 percent of drug court offenders were re-arrested and only 6 percent were convicted and sent to prison. That’s a significant decrease, when compared with statewide data showing that 60 percent of people with addiction who were sent to prison return there in five years. “No other criminal justice response we’re aware of even comes close to achieving these kind of results with this really high-risk population of offenders,” Blankenship says.

As drug courts have taken root, other alternative court models have appeared.

Savannah, Ga., for example, now has a felony drug court, a mental health court, a veterans’ court, a DUI court and two juvenile courts. Each offers a different twist on the basic drug court model — intensive supervision and treatment tailored to the needs of different populations.

Jean Cottier, coordinator of the Savannah-Chatham County Drug Court, offers impressive statistics about the city’s mental health court. Forty of its graduates, who together had racked up 564 arrests and 1,074 criminal charges prior to participating in the alternative court, only had four arrests and five criminal charges in the two years after completing the program.

Alternative courts also save money, Cottier says. Participants in the felony drug court cost taxpayers only about $19 per day, but “it costs $58 a day to house a prisoner in our local jail,” she explains.

Alternative courts also reduce city spending because they target those who use courts and other public systems the most. People who end up in mental health court, in particular, “are high consumers of services in the community,” Cottier says. A successful mental-illness court can cut ER visits drastically, for instance, saving taxpayer money.

A SEA CHANGE

It’s easy to caricature drug courts, which often offer cakes and hug-filled graduation ceremonies for offenders who complete programs, as part of a soft-on-crime strategy that coddles criminals. Deutsch’s response to that criticism: Drug courts work. Traditional retributive justice doesn’t.

“The people in our community, even some of the most conservative, realize that it’s better to treat people and enable them to transform their lives and become contributing members of our community,” says Judge Blankenship.

While drug courts are becoming more common, they’re still not necessarily reducing the overall prison population. “In many drug courts, criteria for admission can be pretty restrictive,” says Marc Mauer, head of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. “Many of the people going to prison never had an opportunity to go to drug court.”

One of the best critiques of drug courts, then, might be that there just aren’t enough of them, and they aren’t helping enough people. But their rise may be a signal that the American criminal justice system is beginning to move away from an exclusive focus on punishment.

Drug courts “are a response, a reaction to more than a generation of policy making in this country where we’ve essentially tiled the axis of the justice system in the direction of punitive policy making,” says Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Twenty-five years ago, Berman says, the criminal justice conversation was about “how to make punishment swift and certain.” Now, within policy circles, “people say, yes, we can change the behavior of offenders.”

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