Drug Court: The Other Side of the Coin

The return of Denver’s drug court this week has been hailed by everyone from the mayor to the district attorney to graduates of the program. The Denver Post‘s headline Friday read, “Drug court gives addicts 2nd chance,” and the Rocky Mountain News announced, “Drug court called step for practicality. But while drug courts may benefit some people, not everyone thinks they’re so hunky dory – a fact neither daily bothered to mention.

Although Denver’s drug court officially began March 9, both stories appeared in Friday’s newspapers because of a press conference held Thursday, during which Denver officials lauded the return of drug court and made several chosen graduates “available for interviews.” While again, drug courts may very well help some people, there is opposition, and the media should look at them with a critical eye rather than simply repeating what’s said at a press conference. Colorado Confidential brings you the other side of the story.

The scandal of America’s drug courts is that we have rushed headlong into them – driven by politics, judicial pop-psychopharmacology, fuzzy-headed notions about “restorative justice” and “therapeutic jurisprudence,” and by the bureaucrats’ universal fear of being the last on the block to have the latest administrative gimmick. – Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman

While proponents of drug courts say their purpose is to get people into treatment instead of prison, others disagree.

“It’s real purpose is docket management” says Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “It’s not matching people up with treatment.”

Donner also believes drug courts just “widen the net” of law enforcement. She says there’s no shortage of drug users on the streets to be caught, and drug courts allow them to be shuffled through the system faster. She says Denver’s drug court helped the city clear out LoDo when it was being redeveloped in the early 1990s.

Morris Hoffman, a Denver District Court Judge since 1990, saw the widening net firsthand.

“In Denver, we grossly underestimated the enthusiasm with which our police and prosecutors would embrace the idea of the drug court. As a result, our projections of the number of drug filings in the new drug court were woefully understated,” Hoffman writes in “The Drug Court Scandal,” a scathing critique of drug courts published in 2000 in the North Carolina Law Review. 

The number of filings in the drug court tripled after its first year, Hoffman writes.

Donner and Hoffman also say that fundamentally, drug court doesn’t work.

“It’s the slow road to prison,” Donner says.

That’s because offenders are required to enter treatment, undergo periodic drug testing, do community service, attend court hearings – and somehow manage to pay for it all.

Treatment is often paid for by the offender and can run into the thousands of dollars. There’s a big shortage of treatment options for low-income people, says Donner.

If you have money, you go to treatment, but if you’re poor, you go to prison, she says.

In addition, many addiction experts say relapses are normal for drug addicts and shouldn’t be punished with prison time.

Others argue that the problem  of prisons being overcrowded with drug offenders should be solved by legislators – not judges.

“Regardless of one’s position on complex issues like the scope of the drug problem, the disease theory of addiction, or the legalization of some drugs, surely these are public policy questions that must be answered by elected lawmakers after open and vigorous public debate, not by judges operating in the cloak of pseudoscience,” writes Hoffman.

Donner also believes judges should not be determining how successful drug users are in their treatment.

“Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are not therapists,” she says.

Hoffman attacks both the premise of drug courts and their efficacy.

“They are filling our state prisons with drug users, despite promising to do just the opposite,” he writes.

Another problem is that drug courts tend to impose a one-size-fits-all solution. Not all offenders are addicts, and of those who are, not all want treatment.

It remains to be seen whether Denver’s new drug court will live up to its promises of lower recidivism rates and diverting offenders from prison to treatment, but the cake & balloons write-ups in the newspapers didn’t do justice to the story.

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