Are some prosecutors and defense lawyers under the mistaken impression drug courts are only available for defendants facing felony charges?

Former State Rep. Ben Sherrer (D-Pryor), now a criminal defense attorney, co-sponsored a bill in 2008 to expand drug courts to include adjudication for misdemeanor cases. Before the bill was signed into law, Oklahoma’s drug courts were only open to felony cases. However, he believes confusion over the changes enacted via State Question 780 is denying low-level drug offenders the opportunity to participate.

“I can’t cite a single specific instance where a misdemeanor offender was actually placed into a drug court,” Sherrer says.

Because many drug possession charges previously adjudicated as felonies are now classified as misdemeanors, attorneys and judges may not be aware of the full scope of which defendants may qualify for drug court.

We are considering several options to increase education, perhaps including a CLE-accredited course, to bring awareness to the range of diversionary sentencing options. Multiple studies confirm the cost is much lower, and the outcomes are much better, when addicts complete a closely-monitored drug court program compared to incarceration. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections estimates the annual cost of incarceration is $19,000 per inmate. The cost of drug court sentencing is significantly less, about $5000 per defendant, with a recidivism rate of 23 percent. Offenders released from prison have a recidivism rate of 54 percent.

Misdemeanor drug courts have better outcomes for the offender and the taxpayer. Oklahoma made great progress in passing HB 2522 bill, but for Oklahomans to get the full benefit, attorneys and judges must be made aware of their full scope and use these courts.