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What to Know About Drug Court

America has a mass incarceration problem. More than 2 million people were in prison or jail in late 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means there are more people behind bars than there are in the city of Phoenix, the fifth-biggest city in the country.

Many people behind bars are there on drug-related charges, although that percentage varies considerably depending on which state you’re in. But even as that’s happening, some cities and counties are trying to help remedy things. Drug court is one way to do that, so here’s what you need to know about drug court.

Treatment versus punishment

If you throw someone in jail for using drugs, that’s probably not going to help break their underlying addiction. Drug court recognizes this and focuses on treatment rather than punishment. The person in drug court can maintain some sense of routine instead of sitting in a prison cell all day. They can stay with their family, and that support network can be critical to ensuring they get and stay clean.

But drug court is not a walk in the park. People who participate in this court will be expected to complete drug treatment. This is important for a few reasons. For one, many people struggling with addiction can’t or won’t access treatment unless their freedom depends on it.

There’s help out there, but a lot of people can’t find it on their own. Even if they can, they may not be able to afford it. The 3,000-plus drug courts in America are trying to change that, even if progress is sometimes slow.

The person attending drug court will also be expected to stay clean. This will be enforced through regular drug testing. If the offender doesn’t have a job, they’ll probably have to look for one. They may also be required to complete some sort of educational component.

If they do everything successfully and complete drug court, their record will be wiped clean and they’ll have the fresh start they desire.

Benefits of drug court

In many ways, drug court is a lot like a normal courtroom setting. Many of the same key players are there. For instance, if you walk into a drug court in Florida, you’ll find a judge, lawyers, and even a Fort Lauderdale court reporter.

But drug court isn’t in the business of hauling people off to jail indefinitely. That’s because it’s also a “problem-solving court,” which means the primary purpose is therapeutic rather than punitive.

Does it work? The evidence suggests that yes, it works for many people. In places like Spokane County, Washington, the recidivism rate for drug court graduates is 11 percent. That’s much better than the 52 percent recidivism rate for defendants who qualified for the program but then, for whatever reason, did not enter it.

There’s also plenty of evidence that these programs save money along with lives. Money shouldn’t be the first priority in the criminal justice system, of course. But it turns out that sending someone to drug court is less expensive than locking them in a cell and throwing away the key.

When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s easy for them to feel like a hamster running on an exercise wheel. They’re exhausted, but they can never seem to get anywhere as long as the underlying addiction remains. They might go to jail, bail out, and then do it all over again a few weeks later.

Of course, the person going through drug court has to want to succeed. They must want to get clean. But wanting isn’t always enough; these courts can take that vague desire to get clean and turn it into something tangible and positive.

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