Drug court offers strategy for success

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Recidivism rate for drug court graduates is much lower than offenders placed on probation or sent to prison

By Lisa Schlichtman

Drug courts have been operating throughout the state of Missouri since 1993 when Jackson County established the state's first drug court. Currently, there are 108 operational drug court programs in Missouri, which serve over 3,000 active participants. According to the State Drug Courts Coordinating Commission, Missouri has more drug courts per capita than any other state in the nation.

Ann Wilson, alcohol and drug abuse coordinator with the Office of State Courts Administrator, has been working with the Barry County Drug Court Planning Committee for the past six months. She is considered an expert on the drug court system and believes the program works and can work effectively in Barry County.

"The rapid increase of felony cases filed with drugs or drug-related crimes indicates Barry County is a great place for a drug court," said Wilson.

Drug courts are a proven alternative for diverting non-violent offenders from time behind bars. This system provides offenders with a way to remain in their communities while supporting their families and paying taxes.

Drug courts provide drug offenders a way to break the cycle of arrest, conviction, incarceration and release, offering intervention services that far exceed typical probation.

One of the most telling indicators of the success of drug courts is the average recidivism rate for a drug court graduate. According to Wilson, there is a 10 percent recidivism rate among drug court graduates. In layman's terms that means that only one in 10 drug court graduates receives a new felony case after successfully graduating from the program.

This rate is significantly lower than the recidivism rate for offenders who are placed on probation or serve prison time.

On average, about 60 percent of drug court participants persist to graduation. When the graduation rate is combined with the recidivism rate, drug courts can boast a 50 percent success rate.

When asked what makes the drug court model more successful at rehabilitating offenders than the more traditional court system, Wilson offered four different reasons.

1. Drug court utilizes a team approach, which involves law enforcement, treatment professionals and members of the judicial community. These individuals work together to make sure the offender is held accountable in all areas of his or her life.

2. Incentives and sanctions are used by the drug court to modify an offender's behavior. According to Wilson, drug court upholds the principle that change is quickest to occur if good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished.

3. Frequent appearances before the judge have a strong impact on the offender. "Many participants have indicated that going before the judge made a difference because having a judge tell them they are doing good means a lot," said Wilson.

4. Drug court is a lengthy process that lasts 18 months on average. By comparison, most treatment programs last 28 days or three months at the most. The longer a person is in treatment, the greater the chance of success, Wilson said.

As Barry County moves forward with its drug court proposal, clearly defined goals and objectives will be created by the planning team members. Judge Victor Head, who heads up the local planning team, will be at the center of the drug court system.

Historically, it is the judge who serves as the central figure who imposes rewards and sanctions based on the offender's commitment to treatment and whether or not he or she fulfills the requirements set out by the drug court team.

"Offenders will be required to attend court more often than the current standard and will be held accountable for their actions," said Judge Head. "I like the fact that offenders will also be subjected to drug screenings and required to attend in-patient treatment, seek employment, housing and an education."

The drug court process is described by Wilson as "very intensive."

"We keep them very busy," said Wilson. "That level of accountability and discipline is key to recovery."

Offenders entering the drug court system can expect to be drug tested three to five times a week and make frequent appearances before the judge. Drug court participants are also required to obtain a job and successfully complete a substance abuse treatment program.

"I really hope that the drug court can take people whose lives are being controlled or destroyed by substance abuse and make them into clean, sober and useful members of the community," said Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox, another member of the Barry County Drug Court Planning team. "I also hope that it will make some difference by decreasing the amount of crime and caseload the system currently has to deal with."

This is the second in a series of articles focusing on a proposed drug court in Barry County. Next week's article will focus on the costs of establishing of drug court in Barry County and how the program could actually save taxpayers' money in the long run.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: