Judges have the opportunity to divert low-level drug offenders away from incarceration and into treatment through drug court programs. A holistic approach, the programs hold participants accountable through monitoring, random drug testing, peer groups, and follow-ups upon graduation.
In Alabama, the typical drug court process works like this. A person is arrested and charged with a drug offense. Typically, early in the process, the person must face a sometimes difficult decision: apply for drug court or no. In order to be accepted in a drug court program, it first requires a willingness to enter a plea of guilty to the charges. (Some clients choose this route to obtain the benefits of the program even if they have a possibly winnable case.) After the decision is made to try, first, the person makes application with the drug court administrator. If the administrator accepts the person into the program, there is an application to plead guilty made; this usually entails a plea agreement with the District Attorney’s office. After the person pleads guilty, the court holds the plea and delays sentencing the person, pending successful completion of the drug court program.
The drug court program is tough. It usually requires frequent court appearances, in-person reviews, and color-coded drug screens.
There are two benefits: One, if a person successfully completes the program, the charges are dismissed. Therefore, it may be means of avoiding a felony conviction. Second, it may be a means to avoid prison or incarceration. Sometimes, the sentencing guidelines may direct imprisonment; however, admission to drug court does not employ the same criteria. I have clients, which were heading to prison because of their record, avoid that road by entering the drug court.
These programs are seemingly effective as well.
A 2015 study revealed drug court graduates were convicted of 50 percent fewer felonies two years after program completion than their counterparts.
If, however, someone fails the program, the judge can impose the original sentence entered pursuant to the plea to enter the program.
Drug addiction warrants a public health response. When treated as a criminal justice problem, a person’s root issues often go unaddressed, and the costs of simply imprisoning them falls upon the taxpayer. It is both fiscally and socially irresponsible to incarcerate all low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. By pulling together the expertise of judges, police officers, and treatment professionals, drug courts can provide a more cost-effective, long-term solution to addiction.