Guest Column: Drug courts reduce crime while saving time, money and resources

Hon. Joy Malek Oldfield

An estimated 1.2 million drug-addicted people are currently involved in the justice system. “Drug courts” provide effective intervention, save money and significantly reduce drug use and crime through intensive supervision and treatment. Such court dockets exist throughout Ohio’s adult and juvenile courts, and there are more than 2,000 across the nation. Over the last 20 years, state and federal studies have consistently shown that drug courts are the most cost-effective way to reduce drug-related crime.

How does a drug court work?

Usually administered through a traditional court, a “drug court” is a specialized docket created to manage cases involving drug-addicted offenders. The cases that qualify for management through a drug court can be drug-related (i.e., possession of drugs), or seemingly non drug-related (i.e., theft), but all involve drug-addicted offenders. 

An arrested person who is determined to have a drug addiction, and otherwise meets the court’s criteria, is screened for eligibility and enters the drug court program shortly after arrest. If appropriate, drug offenders begin treatment within two weeks of arrest. While in the community, they must comply with intensive probation requirements. They meet frequently with case managers, probation officers and the presiding drug court judge. They must prove sobriety through urine testing and must comply with all requirements set by the managers.

In Ohio, the Supreme Court has adopted rules outlining requirements for drug court certification. These standards create a minimum level of uniform practices for each court, and permit two “tracks” by which offenders may enter the program. Under a “probation track,” offenders enter the program as a condition of probation. Under the “intervention in lieu of conviction” track, offenders are eligible to have the charges dismissed upon successful completion of the program. Intervention in lieu of conviction requires 12 consecutive months of sobriety for eligible offenders.

The program requires each offender to complete an individualized case management plan and remain drug and alcohol free. Offenders may obtain GEDs or employment, work with Children’s Services to be reunited with their children, perform volunteer work, attend AA and NA meetings, and do whatever is necessary to re-enter society as sober, responsible people.

Offenders in a drug court program must appear in court on a regular basis and take responsibility if they do not comply with the program’s expectations. If they fail to comply (for example, by missing a meeting or testing positive for drugs), the court imposes a series of graduated sanctions. 

The first sanction, for example, may require sitting in court for one day. The second sanction may require two days of community service, and three days of jail time may be required for the third sanction, and so on. The offender will not be removed from the program unless he or she is unwilling to try, but the offender’s willingness to try is gauged on actions, not just words. Some offenders decline to enter the program, opting for jail or prison instead because they feel the program’s requirements are too difficult. 

Why not just send drug users to jail?

Drug courts reduce crime as much as 45 percent more than other sentencing options. Without drug treatment, more than 70 percent of drug addicts will commit new crimes, but 75 percent of drug court graduates nationwide remain arrest-free for at least two years after leaving the program.

In addition, incarceration is an expensive punishment, and national corrections expenditures exceed $60 billion annually. 

In both the short and long term, drug courts are less expensive than traditional approaches. For every $1 invested in drug courts, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in criminal justice costs alone. Drug courts reduce police overtime for court appearances and lawyers’ fees for defendants who cannot pay for their own attorneys. Prosecutors can also devote more time to other cases, which helps reduce the court’s docket, and jail beds can be used for other offenders.

In addition, taxpayers realize long-term savings because rehabilitated offenders can hold jobs, pay taxes, participate in the community and care for their children rather than neglecting them or leaving them to the care of the state. Finally, a rehabilitated offender’s children are much less likely to become offenders. This effectively ends the cycle of crime for many people.

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Joy Malek Oldfield, a municipal court judge and the presiding judge of a drug court in Akron. The column offers general information about the law. Seek an attorney’s advice before applying this information to a legal problem.