Organization of American States Report on Drug Courts

A recent report carried out by the Organization of American States aimed to assess the effectiveness of Drug Treatment Courts in 12 countries already using them as an alternative to incarceration. The main aim of the report was to assess the impact the drugs courts are having on their local communities and to identify any lessons that can be learnt by those considering using similar methods to deal with drug-related crime.

The first drug treatment court was introduced by Dade County Circuit Court in Miami in 1989 with the intention of reducing the number of people in prison for drug related crime. Since that time there has been a rapid increase in the deployment of drug treatment courts, with over a third of US courts now using them.  Targeting people that commit crimes under the influence of drugs or to procure funds for drugs, the treatment courts provide a method that differs markedly from an incarceration-orientated approach. In communities in which drug treatment courts are operative, normal judicial procedures are suspended for offenders involved with drug related crime, conditional on their participation in a rehabilitation and reintegration program. Though of course the details of treatment programs depend on the country and community in which the court resides, all share 3 fundamental aims: helping drug users to beat dependency; avoiding imprisonment (unless the terms of the rehabilitation programme are violated by the offender) and, therefore, preventing the offender from contact with “hardened” criminals who make the possibility a relapse into crime more likely. The OAS report asked its respondents to assess the value and effectiveness of drug treatment courts in achieving these 3 key aims.

They key question, of course, is how the effectiveness of the courts and the treatments they offer is to be assessed. The report asked its respondents to state why they wanted to introduce treatment courts in the first place and then to assess the extent to which they felt they had served their purpose. In all cases, the emphasis was on reducing recidivism in the local community and encouraging those accused to recover from their addictions and become responsible and contributing members of society. Jorn Dangreau of DBK in Ghent, Belgium, for example, stated that a drug treatment court was introduced to the city in 2008 in order to facilitate a “better and swifter response to criminal behaviour by drug absuers”. Since being established, 89 drug users have successfully completed the program and Dangreau is convinced of the superiority of the system over more ‘hard-line’ traditionalist approaches: “We feel that the problem solving system is working much better for [these] kind of offenders”.

David Fletcher, of the UK’s North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, responded that a drug treatment court was set up in the city in 2005 to tackle high levels of crime and depravation in the community. The Liverpool court targeted two specific groups: long term heroin users and young people aged between 14 and 30 using skunk cannabis. Again, the results have been positive, both for the individuals undergoing rehabilitation and for the community as a whole. Reoffending has been on the decrease, according to Fletcher, while “the public’s confidence in the system’s ability to deal with this type of offender has increased”. A 75% decrease in recidivism was also reported in Dublin, Ireland, where a drug treatment court was begun in 2001.

The overall statistics also seem to support the conclusion that drug treatment courts are working well. Excluding the USA, over 3,800 participants have enrolled in drug treatment courts across 11 countries since 2001, with more than 500 offenders having successfully completed the typical 12-15 month course of rehabilitation and reintegration. In the USA, it is estimated that approximately 500,000 have enrolled with more than 100,000 having successfully graduated.
In the majority of cases, the ‘human element’ in the programs offered by the treatment courts was cited as a key reason for their success. A fundamental premise of their approach is that dependency cannot be treated in isolation from the psychological reasons that may be underpinning it or the implications it has for the wider community. Becoming ‘sober’ is only the first step for those enrolled in drug treatment courts, many of which also require their graduates to acquire a high school diploma and secure employment and a sponsor in the local community. The result, argue proponents of the courts, is not just a decrease in recidivism, but reduced stress on the police, healthcare and prison systems.  In his preface to the report, Alexandre Addor-Netto, Secretary for Multidimensional Security for the Organization of American States, stressed the urgency of tackling the “roots of the phenomenon” of drug crime and not shying away from facing the social problems it poses. Incarceration is not the answer, according to Addor-Netto: “ [Drug treatment courts help] reduce the spiralling rise in costs that countries bear to imprison a large portion of their population, sometimes hopeless and helpless poor youngsters, whose possibilities of a decent life decline even more as they are sent to prison”.

The courts are not without problems, of course. Many respondents cited difficulties with funding, particularly with acquiring and retaining qualified staff to work on the programs. And in some cases the systems are too young for statistics to be available or to tell us any kind of story (as in Mexico, for example). Overall, though, the report gives us reason to feel optimistic about the possibility of a more humanitarian and enlightened approach to dealing with drug addiction and the crimes it results in. Addor-Netto is optimistic about their future: “…[W]e believe in the approach that underlies drug treatment courts: more inclusive, more humane, more efficient and even cheaper in the long run. Let us support this initiative with all our strength as professionals and as human beings”.

Read the report here.