Drug Courts work in America – and can work here

January 13, 2014

Policy Exchange has often sought advice on policing and crime prevention from the United States – for instance, in seeking to translate the lessons of Bill Bratton and Mayor Giuliani, who precipitated the massive, unprecedented fall in crime experienced by New Yorkers in the 1990s. But while US policing is often a source of good practice, innovation and inspiration, it’s rare that we look to the American criminal justice system for the same kinds of insight. This is, after all, a system with the highest per capita prison population in the world, where a third of young black men are involved in the correctional system, and in which people regularly still receive prison terms for drug possession. However, there are a growing number of criminal justice programmes in the US which deserve our attention and merit proper consideration now – as we confront our deep social problems at a time of public spending constraints.

Just before Christmas, we brought Matthew Perry, star of Friends, to London for a three day visit to promote one such programme, along with a number of other international experts (the video of one of our events can be viewed here). Regrettably, it’s unusual for us to secure Hollywood stars to help us promote our ideas, but Perry is a former addict who, in recovery, has become an international ambassador for Drug Courts. Drug Courts were conceived in Miami in the 1990s as a judge-led, creative response to the long queues of non-violent, acquisitive criminals filling up American courtrooms – there for crimes committed for one reason: to feed a habit. Floridian judges decided that enough was enough, and that throwing these people into the prison system didn’t make an awful lot of sense. Instead of simply processing these cases in the conventional way and handing down more jail time, Drug Courts give offenders a choice: get clean and sober with our help, or go to jail.

These specialist courts offer people the treatment they need, but demand much more of them in return. Offenders get drug tested (three times a week) so there’s real accountability for their compliance, and they come back before the same judge on a weekly basis to review their progress in staying clean, finding or keeping a job, or rekindling family ties. This is a big change from the norm and means a different kind of court set-up and a more supportive environment.  If offenders don’t comply with the court, the judge has a flexible range of incentives and sanctions available, including sending an offender to jail for a night or two as instant punishment. Swiftly applied, these sorts of sanctions really work – operating on the vital (but poorly understood) principle that, when it comes to changing behaviour, it’s the immediacy and certainty of a punishment that really counts, not simply the severity.

Crucially, drug courts are proven to work in reducing crime and costs. Some analyses estimate that they save $3 in avoided criminal justice costs for every $1 invested, with these savings rising to $26 when wider social costs are included. As a result, there are now almost 3,000 Drug Courts across the US, operating across every state and every major city. The movement is ever growing, with the Obama Administration recently choosing to invest even more heavily in these initiatives, seeking to change the culture of a criminal justice system that for too long has focused purely on punishment, without seeking to address the underlying causes of crime.

It’s true that in England and Wales we’ve trialled a few Drug Court models in the past, most notably from 2005 to 2010. However, as so often with our criminal justice experimentation, we did it badly, with models that did not faithfully adhere to the key aspects of the original programme. Perhaps most importantly, our system is incredibly centralised – creating a culture where the people who work in it feel that they have to ask permission from central government to do anything innovative, and therefore rarely ask. So innovation is, in turn, driven from the centre by necessity – meaning that once the key protagonists (e.g. the politicians and a civil servant or two who have sponsored the reforms) move on to their next job, there are no champions in government left to continue the momentum. This is how once exciting ideas and, indeed, live projects are too often left to drift, decay and slowly die off.

So how about some New Year’s Resolutions for our politicians and those officials working on criminal justice policy? First, they might spend some time in 2014 thinking about how to connect successful Drug Court and other problem-solving court models to the reforms government is pursuing to the way rehabilitation is provided. There are huge changes being made within our prisons and the probation system, but who in government is thinking about how all of this connects with the courts and the sentences that are available to the judiciary?

Second, they should ensure that with each policy, they set about dismantling the parts of the system that have allowed inertia, risk-aversion and lethargy to fester and flourish. Reformers should focus on bringing about culture change, empowering the judges, magistrates, prison officers, probation staff and treatment providers – those who have the will but not often the means to revolutionise their services – to adopt the best ideas and to innovate, themselves.  We’ll know we’ve got there when practitioners no longer ask for permission to try something new –  they just get on and do it, and ask for forgiveness instead.

This article originally appeared on ConservativeHome

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