Drug Courts: The Intersection of Psychology and Criminal Justice

Nearly half (46.3%) of all people in federal prison are incarcerated for drug-related offenses as of December 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The next most common offense (weapons, explosives and arson) only accounts for 17.4% of the prison population.

Does it have to be this way? Perhaps not. New Hampshire and other states are experimenting with drug court programs that steer offenders into alternative sentencing arrangements such as treatment in lieu of prison.

“When I went to drug court, 100% of the people I work with were there because of opioids, but that’s because that’s what they were getting arrested for in drug court,” said George Bortnick, a New England College psychology professor and substance abuse counselor at Keystone Hall, a nonprofit substance abuse treatment facility in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Read More: State of Substance Abuse in the United States

Bortnick says he has seen attitudes toward drug courts change since he first worked as a counselor in the drug court program for Keystone Hall. He now counsels inmates in prison.

“In Rockingham County [New Hampshire], where I used to work, when they started a drug court six or seven years ago, the county jail was overpopulated. Now, because of the drug court, they have the lowest rates in the last couple of years than any other county jail,” he said. “That’s because instead of going there three or four months, [offenders] are being processed in the drug courts.”

What Happens in a Drug Court

While programs may vary, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) says participants usually receive treatment and drug testing for at least a year. In addition, they are required to appear in court at regular intervals, pass regular and random drug tests, undergo treatment and meet other obligations.

Drug court consists of a prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, counselors, representatives from the jail and people representing the person going through the court process. These professionals represent both the criminal justice and psychology elements of the program.

Bortnick said the size of the drug courts can vary, depending on need and resources. The one he worked at had two clinicians and between 30 and 40 participants. There were four phases:

  1. For the first three months, participants attend group and individual meetings three times a week, as well as a weekly appointment with the judge.
  2. In the second phase, group meetings occurred once a week; individual meetings with a counselor were every other week. Participants also met with a judge twice a week.
  3. During the third phase, participants attended a one-hour group meeting each week, and meet individually with a counselor once a month. Meetings with the judge were also once a month.
  4. In the final phase, participants were only required to attend occasional check-in meetings.

“The goal of drug court is to get people feeling comfortable going in front of a judge and to be honest,” Bortnick said. “The rule was, if you used, but you were honest about it you didn’t go to jail.”

Drug courts began emerging in 1989, and there are more than 3,000 drug courts, according to NADCP. However, drug courts only serve a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million people with substance abuse offenses currently in the justice system.

There are several different types of drug courts, including ones for adults, juveniles and veterans, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Specialized courts might deal with drunk driving offenses or child welfare cases. There are also tribal drug courts that cater to Native Americans.

Benefits of Drug Courts

The NIJ found that drug courts reduced the number of repeat offenders while lowering costs. One study reported a decrease in the number of repeat felony arrests by 18% in Escambia County, Florida, and 15% in Jackson County, Missouri.

NADCP reports that drug courts today significantly reduce crime as much as 45% more than other forms of sentencing. They also save taxpayers $3,000 to $13,000 per participant, reflecting lower criminal justice and prison costs.

“You don’t really get treatment in prison, but you can if you’re in drug court,” Bortnick said. “Prison isn’t really the answer in the long term, because you need this treatment.”

At a recent conference, Bortnick met with people advocating for drug courts since the 1990s. They were very impressed with the progress that had been made over the past 25 years.

“If I was in charge of everything, that’s what I’d be pushing, more treatment and less prison,” Bortnick said. “The criminalization part does not work – we’ve known that for like 80 years and haven’t reduced the problem.”

Criticism of Drug Courts

While the consensus appears to be that drug courts are advantageous and useful, some criticism remains. In 2009, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released a report identifying several problems and challenges related to drug courts. Among the criticisms:

  • Some drug courts require defendants to submit guilty pleas before entering drug court, so they are left with a conviction on their record.
  • By excluding violent crimes done under the influence of drugs, the courts might fail to help people with mental illness issues.
  • Racial disparities appear to exist.

The NACDL report states that while there could be “other smart, fair, effective and economic approaches” to approaching criminal justice for substance abuse, substance abuse should be treated as a mental health matter versus a criminal justice issue.

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