As reported in the December LA Times with the passage of Prop 47, Californians may see the demise of drug treatment courts for nonviolent drug offenders. While the judges and prosecutors may believe this is an unintended consequence, it is a benefit for those that use drugs recreationally as well as those that have drug issues. Charges that may have been treated as a felony may now be considered a misdemeanor. No longer facing a felony charge these individuals are free to opt out of the forced medical treatment imposed by the courts. They no longer need to fear ineffective and biased treatment options that are mandated by judges and lawyers that are not medical professionals. Californians may now chose to get help for their drug use or misuse by their own medical care providers. Prop 47 enables thousands to be free of the label, felon or criminal in the public's eyes; they are free from the stigma associated with the words hopeless drug addict, criminal drug offender or brain diseased drug patient in need of prison.
Drug treatment courts have been a criminal justice experiment that needs to see its last days come to an end. It has been an experiment that has forced individuals into treatment that they may or may not need. According to the National Institutes of Health Outcome (NIH) Trajectory Study 1/3 of drug court participant did not meet the criteria for substance abuse treatment. These individuals do not need drug treatment court or prison; they need punitive drug laws changed. The stigma of participation in drug court to stay out of jail for a drug violation has ruined people's lives and made them unemployable. It has broken families and publically shamed participants and exposed private medical information to others. It has allowed judges and lawyers to practice medicine without a license. It has forced medical treatment on individuals that do not meet the criteria of addiction.
Drug treatment courts were instituted under the disguise of compassionate medical care and an alternative to prison for those charged with select nonviolent drug crimes in need of substance abuse treatment. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) has convinced the legal community that it is criminal to take drugs and that forced treatment is the answer to address this morally wrong behavior. Their All Rise Philosophy and public service announcement persuade advocates that judges and lawyers know more about drug and alcohol addiction than the medical community. In the over 20 years of these expanding courts, there is not enough evidence that they are doing what they proposed to do. In fact according the Baltimore Sun,two reports "Addicted to Drug Courts and "Drug Courts are not the Answer," question the on going support of these courts.
The research shows that drug courts can come with significant unintended negative consequences that make these programs ineffective and may actually be making the criminal justice system more punitive toward those with addiction.
Advocates, government officials, addiction counselors and physicians have blindly supported and expanded these courts throughout the United States under their moral obligation to do good, yet the courts do not do what was promised. Drug and alcohol use has not decreased and deaths from complications of alcohol and drug use and overdose are at an all time high. The courtroom testimonials and graduation ceremonies of drug treatment courts are feel good stories for judges, lawyers, legislators, government bureaucrats as well as news reporters. These courts air individual's private lives in a reality television format that has fascinated the likes of celebrities and political insiders. Supporters of drug courts are quoted that without the threat of a felony, drug users will not accept help. This statement is a perpetuated myth that has not been proven by any researcher. A federal study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for example showed that people referred to treatment from the criminal justice system do not fare any better than those referred to treatment by other means such as a family member or employer. Furthermore the long-term effects of participation in drug court do not ring true. The Journal of Experimental Criminology found that ¾ of drug court participants are re-arrested after three years for drugs regardless of whether they participated in drug treatment court or not. It further stated that drug treatment court participants spend approximately the same number of days incarcerated as the control group.
Researchers are learning more about the complexity of drug use and misuse, it is a field that is changing their approach and understanding of just what constitutes effective substance use disorder treatment. Currently, doctors as well as emergency care workers are uneducated in the changing field of addiction medicine and also are unable to find good care for their patients or their own loved ones. If good quality care was affordable and assessable to all that need it and physicians and emergency care workers were trained with effective methods to treat substance issues, more individuals would seek care. They do not need the threat of a felony conviction to accept care. Individuals need respect, understanding and acceptance to seek care.
Although we have yet to see the true effects of Prop 47 in California and the possible demise of drug treatment courts, individuals are refusing placement into mandated substance use programs from biased judges and lawyers. Beds that may be taken up by drug treatment participants that do not meet the criteria for care may become available for individuals that truly need care. Changing the drug charge classification allows Californians to choose how they wish to address their substance use issues. It may also be a start in repairing the lives and stigma of individuals who use drugs. No longer facing a felony charge, individuals may begin to talk to their medical providers about their drug use and misuse and doctors will start to listen. With support from their doctors they may look for specialized care and take charge of their medical needs.
If substance use disorder, misuse of drugs and alcohol along with the rising overdose rate is viewed as a health crisis why are drug policies still seeking solutions within the criminal justice system? It has not worked. Judges and lawyers playing doctor does not help those with substance use issues. Let the medical field take charge of the medical needs of drug users instead of allowing them to abdicate their responsibility to the court system. Change the punitive drug laws and let the doctors and medical researchers do their job.