THE ISSUE. In 2006, the United States arrested approximately 1.89 million people for drug-related offenses, up from 581,000 in 1980. Many of these offenders were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. They were not immediate threats to public safety, but it was in society’s best interest to ensure that they stopped abusing drugs. Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether incarceration is accomplishing that goal.
THE IMPACT. Incarceration can cost anywhere from $16,000 per year per offender (the average in Texas) to $50,000 per year per offender (the average in California). Recidivism rates are high in American prisons, and there is little evidence that drug abusers who enter prison leave having conquered their addiction.
THE CONSERVATIVE SOLUTION. Drug courts are specialty courts with judges who impose supervision, drug testing, treatment, and sanctions upon defendants in lieu of incarceration. The reduced recidivism rates that result from the use of drug courts benefit public safety, but drug courts can also reduce the burden of incarceration on state budgets because they cost less—between $2,500 and $4,000 annually per offender. Conservatives favor voluntary drug courts because they provide options for those people who are sincerely committed to taking responsibility to reform their lives.
For example, the HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) program, started by a former federal prosecutor in Hawaii, conducts frequent drug tests backed-up by swift and certain sanctions for violations, usually a few days in jail. They have cut drug use by more than 70% and arrests for new crimes fell by more than 50%. Moreover, when offenders are participating in HOPE, they are taking up far fewer prison beds, and Hawaii can prioritize the space for violent offenders.
The HOPE program recognizes that a drug court should not be a free pass. Offenders in drug courts should remain under regular monitoring to ensure that they hold jobs, receive treatment, and pay restitution if they have been convicted of a property crime. As defendants complete the rigorous program of the drug court, they remain outside of prison, and therefore, they should be encouraged to hold a job and support their families. There are many benefits to this system. Families stay together more often. Children are provided for more often. Burdens on social services systems such as foster care are alleviated. In some cases, if offenders complete the drug court program to the satisfaction of the judge and the person is not a threat to public safety and was not involved in dealing drugs, the underlying offense can be removed from their record, and thus does not harm their future employment prospects.
There are nearly 2,000 drug courts nationally, and the evidence indicates that they work. The national recidivism rate of those who complete drug court programs is between 4 and 29 percent. The control group incarceration rate is 48 percent. Even those who enter drug courts but do not complete their programs appear to have lower recidivism rates. In the state of Texas, for example, where approximately 100 drug courts are operating, the re-arrest rate for those who begin but do not complete the drug court program is 40.5 percent, as compared to the 58.5 percent rate in the Texas control group.
In drug courts, America has found not only a solution to an important public policy problem, it has hit yet again upon an essential conservative truth – the power of personal responsibility and accountability. Drugs courts are not suitable for every convicted defendant, but neither is imprisonment.
Aubrey Vaughan Travis | January 15, 2020
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