Treating Substance Abuse as an Alternative to Incarceration

Photo: Offenders engaging in court-mandated community service.  Midtown Community Court. New York City. Source: Center for Court Innovation.

Photo: Offenders engaging in court-mandated community service. Midtown Community Court. New York City. Source: Center for Court Innovation.

Societies across the Americas are affected by the impact that drug abuse bears on families, the workplace and even public security. But in recent years, a growing trend in justice systems is successfully shifting the conventional approach of rehabilitation to one that focuses on finding alternatives to incarceration for drug dependent offenders.  The Organization of American States (OAS), is working with member states to develop and implement these innovative aternative policies aimed at achieving results that restore the offenders to health, and at the same time, improving the conditions of their communities.

Understanding that drug dependency is a chronic, relapsing disease that must be dealt with as a core element of public health policy, the OAS, through the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), of the Secretariat for Multidimensional Security, is promoting this approach. This strategy includes the establishment of drug treatment courts where recovery is closely supervised by a judge with the power to reward progress and rebuke relapses, and uses a team of prosecutors, defense lawyers, health professionals, and police to rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals back into the community. This approach has proven successful in reducing repeat offenses and relapse into drug use.

Treatment alternatives to incarceration for drug-dependent offenders involve diverting substance-abusing offenders from prison and jail into treatment and rehabilitation under judicial supervision.  By increasing direct supervision of offenders, coordinating public resources, and expediting case processing, treatment alternatives to incarceration can help break the cycle of criminal behavior, alcohol and drug use, and imprisonment. The details of how these alternative mechanisms have been implemented vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from country to country.

The problem

Heavy drug use is found more frequently among offenders than among the general population, as shown by a number of studies in the Western Hemisphere and Europe.  Offenses committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to self-reports in some countries, represent an even higher percentage of crimes by drug-dependent offenders.

Because drug abuse is compulsive, it does not stop at the prison door. In the United States, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 70 percent of individuals in state prisons and local jails have abused drugs regularly, compared with approximately 9 percent of the general population. Some studies show that treatment cuts drug abuse in half, reduces criminal activity up to 80 percent, and reduces re-arrests up to 64 percent. However, less than one-fifth of these offenders receive treatment for their drug dependence.

Drug treatment not only lowers recidivism rates, it is also cost-effective. According to the U.S.National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), in the U.S., the modality of drug courts, as a treatment alternative to incarceration for drug dependent offenders, returns an average of $2.21 to the Justice system for every one dollar invested and up to $12 in community impacts for every dollar invested.

NIDA says that the failure to treat addicts in the criminal justice system contributes to a continuous cycle of substance abuse and crime. Untreated substance abuse adds significant costs to communities, including violent and property crimes, prison expenses, court and criminal costs, emergency room visits, child abuse and neglect, lost child support, foster care and welfare costs, reduced productivity, unemployment, and victimization.

Finding solutions

Studies show that treatment cuts drug abuse in half, reduces criminal activity up to 80 percent, and reduces re-arrests up to 64 percent However less than one-fifth of drug dependent offenders receive treatment for their drug dependence.

Source: NIDA

Retribution for crimes committed is insufficient in a modern society: the need to adopt approaches such as therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice that seek the rehabilitation of the offender and redress for the victims of crime is quite clear.  The OAS has adopted this approach through the Drug Treatment Courts in the Americas initiative. 

Drug treatment courts have the responsibility of handling cases involving drug-using offenders through a system involving comprehensive supervision, mandatory drug testing, treatment services (and other therapeutic interventions) and immediate sanctions and incentives. They provide the focus and leadership for community-wide anti-drug systems, bringing together criminal justice, treatment, education and other community-based partners in the reduction of substance dependency and abuse and criminality.

Policies that help prevent crime, violence and drugs are just as vital to community wellbeing as are law enforcement actions.  Drug Treatment Courts have proved to provide an effective answer to four major problems. According to the NADCP, they:

  • Reduce crime
  • Reduce relapse into drug use
  • Reduce prison population
  • And last but not least, they are cost-effective

CICAD is working with a number of organizations to identify innovations and good practices in addressing the needs of drug-dependent offenders, both through drug treatment courts and other holistic approaches that treat the individual, his/her family, work, health and social wellbeing as a whole, while still ensuring that the community’s security concerns are met. This search for good practices covers experiences in more than 19 drug treatment courts in Chile, the new drug court in Nuevo Leon (Mexico), two pilot projects in Jamaica, the more than 2,500 drug courts in the US (learn more at NADCP), and the increasing numbers of such courts throughout Canada (learn more at CADTC). On the research side, the Justice Programs Office, School of Public Affairs, of American University and CICAD, together with other institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, have prepared a number of publications. For more information about drug treatment courts worldwide, please visit the International Association of Drug Treatment Courts (IADTC)

For a closer look at judicial approaches to crimes in the community, CICAD recently visited some of the sites of the Center for Court Innovation. They are neighborhood-focused courts that attempt to harness the power of the justice system to address local problems, including crime fueled by addiction. By the creation of partnerships and problem solving actions, the Center for Court Innovation works together with the justice system, residents, merchants, churches and schools to find solutions and improve citizen security in the community.

Some good practices in this area can be found at:

  • Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. This center serves three police precincts with about 200,000 residents, and seeks to advance a coordinated response to local problems such as drugs, crime, and landlord-tenant disputes. At RedHook, CICAD team participated in a roundtable (Linking Defendants to Treatment). See documented results.  A video on the Red Hook Community Justice is available online.

  • Midtown Community Court in Manhattan (established in 1993) hears cases where defendants are charged with misdemeanor offenses, such as prostitution, illegal vending, graffiti, and possession of marijuana. Midtown sentences offenders to community service to pay back the neighborhood in which they committed their crime and provides the offenders with social services to address their underlying needs. Read more about Midtown Community Court ; and

  • Harlem Community Justice Center also in Manhattan. Among the many non-traditional services the Harlem Community Justice Center has assembled under one roof are: programs to help local landlords and tenants resolve conflicts and access financial support; programs for at-risk youth, including a youth court; and reentry programs for both juvenile and adult ex-offenders returning to the community. See documented results of Harlem Community Justice Center.

Additional links of interest are at CICAD’s web site