Drug Courts Face Highs and Lows

The Bush administration is encouraging the use of drug courts — special tribunals targeted at lawbreakers with drug problems — to address the issue of addiction in America. They were introduced in the 1980s. Are they working?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Bush administration has called for cost cutting over a wide variety of domestic programs but wants to add federal money to drug courts, special tribunals targeted at lawbreakers with a drug problem. There are more than 1,000 such courts across the country, and their goal is to keep people out of overcrowded prisons and get them off drugs. The idea is promising, if not yet proven. NPR's Libby Lewis visited one court in Las Vegas.

Unidentified Man: All rise. Drug court is now in session. The Honorable Jack Lehman presiding. Please, be seated and come to order.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Sitting in Judge Lehman's drug court is a little like what they say about taking drugs: There are the highs...

Judge JACK LEHMAN (Las Vegas Drug Court): OK, we've got a graduation today, and that's Andrew Anderson. Let's hear it for Andrew.

(Soundbite of applause)

LEWIS: ...and there are the lows.

Judge LEHMAN: You're doing lousy. You're hanging by a thread right now.

LEWIS: Before he goes home tonight, Judge Lehman will see about 150 people in this courtroom. They're here because they've been convicted of some non-violent crime and they have a drug problem, and they're here to avoid going to prison.

Drug courts got their start in the late '80s and early '90s just as the number of drug cases was exploding. Back then, Judge Lehman recalls, a lot of people thought drug courts were hooey.

Judge LEHMAN: They were saying, `I don't know why you want to mollycoddle these druggies,' and, `We ought to put them in prison and throw away the key.'

LEWIS: But they found out for every inmate, that cost about $23,000 a year.

Drug courts vary but they have their own approach and their own lingo. If you're in drug court, you have regular drug tests, treatment and job requirements to try to keep you straight. The judge is like a super probation officer in a black robe. If you stay straight, coming to court to see the judge is a breeze.

Judge LEHMAN: Germaine, you're an outstanding human being. I'm proud to have you in the program.

LEWIS: If you test positive for drugs, that's called a dirty. If you test dirty or if you're a no-show in court, you could pay a fine or you could do jail time. Mess up enough and you're terminated. That means you're out of drug court and off to prison.

There's a fair amount of messing up. Rose Strik is 43 and a mortgage lender. She was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident, and then police found five grams of cocaine in her purse. She has a hip haircut and a Juicy Couture purse, but she's out of fashion big time with Judge Lehman. She's tested dirty three times for amphetamines, then she missed a drug test.

Judge LEHMAN: I'm going to tell you something right now, Rose. You listen to me closely. If you ever, ever, ever fail to leave a urine again, I will immediately terminate you from the program! I will walk over and see the judge and make damn sure you get sent to Nevada State Prison! How dare you fail to leave a urine!

Ms. ROSE STRIK (Drug Court Participant): Your Honor, I have a letter from the doctor and...

LEWIS: The idea here is to use court as leverage to make people want to stop using drugs. It sounds good, but does it work? Judge Lehman says yes. He led the movement for drug courts in Nevada.

Judge LEHMAN: I get letters all the time from parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, who say, `Thanks a lot. What you've done has saved our home.'

LEWIS: President Bush agrees. While he wants to eliminate dozens of programs, he wants to boost funding for drug courts from $40 million to more than $70 million. John Walters is the president's drug czar.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Drug Czar): I think the power that we've seen is the ability to reclaim individuals for the community in a healthy and positive fashion. Many of these people have children. They all have families and to put those back together takes a lot of work, but we've now seen with drug courts, they can be an important tool.

LEWIS: The research on drug courts is mixed. That's partly because drug courts are still relatively new, and it's partly because it's so hard getting people off drugs, even with the threat of prison. What is clear is that drug courts are better than the alternatives.

Doug Marlowe is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. He studied drug courts for years.

Mr. DOUG MARLOWE (University of Pennsylvania): Putting individuals in jail or putting them in home detention or putting anklet monitors on them and treating them through the criminal justice system just has very little, if any, effect on criminal recidivism or drug use. And they have been, frankly, abysmal failures.

LEWIS: And studies show treatment alone is just as big a failure. Marlowe says he believes drug courts are extremely promising, but they have detractors on both the right and the left. He says for drug courts to prove themselves, there's still a lot to figure out to make them work better.

For instance, who's better off in drug court? Who's not? How much of a role should the judge have? Even with all the questions, Marlowe says drug courts have bumped the debate over drug abuse out of its rut, the one that goes, `Is it an illness or a crime?'

Mr. MARLOWE: It really has the goal of holding people accountable essentially for their own good and society's own good and not being punitive for the sake of being punitive but being punitive only for the sake of helping people get better.

LEWIS: Linda Finlay's learning that firsthand in Judge Lehman's court. Finlay's 46. She's in drug court after being convicted of carrying nine grams of cocaine. She has been clean for months, but lately she's tested dirty for cocaine twice. Now she's looking at up to three years in prison if Judge Lehman throws her out of drug court, which he's just about to do.

Judge LEHMAN: Go ahead and put her in cuffs. She's all done. She won't have to worry about anything 'cause she's going to be in Nevada State Prison.

Ms. LINDA FINLAY (Drug Court Participant): But, Your Honor, I've been in perfect compliance for seven months.

Judge LEHMAN: And then you come in here dirty twice for cocaine. I don't feel sorry for you, lady.

LEWIS: But then the prosecutor says he thinks she should get another chance, and Judge Lehman eventually agrees, so he sends Finlay to jail for a week. The bailiff escorts her out in handcuffs, and her last words are something you don't expect to hear, `Thank you, Judge Lehman.'

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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