Drug Courts Help Addicts Recover — But May Cost Them Their Rights

Drug courts were established 25 years ago, transforming the legal response to drug addicts. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to West Huddleston, CEO of an association of drug court professionals.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Twenty-five years ago, Miami-Dade County in Florida was overwhelmed with the crack cocaine epidemic. The judges there kept locking up the same addicts over and over so the county came up with a different concept to deal with them - drug courts. If you were a nonviolent drug offender, you could avoid an immediate prison sentence by going to a drug court. You'd get regular therapy and drug testing. A judge watched your progress, and if you relapsed, well, then you could go to jail.

Today, there are some 3,000 drug courts across the country. West Huddleston is the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. He joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thanks so much for being with us.

WEST HUDDLESTON: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: So who can appear before a drug court?

HUDDLESTON: The criteria for someone to enter a drug court is that they have to be addicted and be eligible for a community sentence such as probation. That's a wide range of types of offenses from possession of cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin, all the way to burglary, robbery, spousal abuse, forgery. There's all sorts of offenses within drug court today.

MARTIN: Are the courts successful?

HUDDLESTON: Yeah. They absolutely are. Over the past 25 years, it's estimated that the almost 3,000 drug courts around the country have treated 1.3 million drug-addicted offenders. The scientists - after putting drug court under their microscope - concluded that drug courts can cut crime by as much as half compared to any other sentencing option. And that saves taxpayers a ton of dollars. Drug court can save the criminal justice system about $2.21 for every dollar invested. So a 221 percent return on investment.

MARTIN: There are some critics who have called the courts a one-dimensional way to grapple with what is a far more complicated challenge in this country - dealing with the preponderance of illegal drugs. How do you respond to that?

HUDDLESTON: Well, there are really two groups against drug courts. One are, you know, kind of really hard-core law enforcement types that believe that we should just keep punishing addicts and that we can actually punish away drug use and addiction. And they're just turning a blind eye to the research. The other group is the group that you're mentioning, which - they're really more interested in legalizing drugs in this country and believe that if drugs were legal that the criminal justice system would be avoided for those who are addicted.

And they're not thinking through that argument very well. Drug courts are filled today - about 142,000 people a year who are there because of crimes related to their drug use, but not there because of a drug possession charge. So again, legalization would unfortunately enhance or increase the number of those types of crimes.

MARTIN: West Huddleston is the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thanks so much for talking with us.

HUDDLESTON: Thank you so much for having me on.

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