Politics

Martin Sheen lobbies for continued drug court funding while two decriminalization groups push for changes

Jeff Winkler Contributor

While amateur advocates swarmed the Capitol encouraging lawmakers not to slash their funds during the ongoing budget battle, supporters of the current drug court system brought out the primo stuff — Martin Sheen.

“Obviously drug court is the very best deal that congress can do to reduce crime and the social consequences related to drug addiction,” said Sheen, riffing off the National Association of Drug Court Professional’s proclamation. “And I’m extremely confident that they will all rise to the occasion and return the appropriation necessary to continue the drug court dream.”

The film star joined members of the NADC as well as several lawmakers from the Congressional Caucus on Drug Policy to encourage continued funding for the roughly $88 million of federal funds given out to continue drug court programs across the country.

Established locally around the country, proponents of drug court programs say that it decreases the financial burden on states, helps addicts from avoiding both relapse and criminal recidivism. Advocates include former Republican Rep. Jim Randstad, who also spoke at the event.

“Drug courts are not only changing lives, they’re saving lives and saving tax payer dollars,” said the self-described former alcoholic Randstad, when he took his turn at the podium. “The most conservative studies show that for every dollar invested in drug courts, $27 are saved on reduced emergency room visits, property loses, criminal justice, incarcerations costs, lost productivity in the marketplace and so forth.”

The speakers, addressing a packed room of young congressional aids, were ostensibly there to further policies that move drug offenders from general criminal proceedings to judicially directed drug rehabilitation programs. But the event comes on the heels of two studies offering strong critiques of the current drug court system and the undercurrent of Thursday’s event may offer a glimpse into the next stage of the drug war debate.

Decriminalization advocates deployed ordinances last week and criticized the effectiveness of drug courts.

Two recent studies — from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) — attempt to examine numerous problems that they say drug courts have either not addressed or left unsolved. The exhaustive DPA report found that drug courts have not actually reduced incarcerations, can leave many people worse off than before beginning programs, and rather than decrease the involvement of the criminal justice system, have actually made treatment more punitive.

Another significant problem has been that many of those sent to drug court appear for minor violations not characterized by criminal or addictive behavior — like simple possession of marijuana. The DPA’s findings, along with the JPI’s, advocate moving towards a health care approach to drug use and away from punitive measures, which is a fancy way of saying “decriminalization.”

In the end, these studies recommend using drug courts only for serious and repetitive offenses, as well as removing the criminal penalties that still apply in drug court cases.

Despite the title of the DPA’s report “Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use,” the study’s director insists that is not a condemnation of the whole system. Rather, it’s a cold, hard, and much-needed analysis of the country’s drug court programs.

“When they’re trying to do good, [drug courts] frankly and sadly just don’t do that much when they’re up against the Drug War,” said DPA’s California deputy state director Margaret Dooley-Sammuli. “The scale of the problem is so much bigger than what they have to try and solve it. The answer is not more drug courts, the problem is trying to address drug use through the criminal justice system.”

The event on the Capitol was arranged months ago and not part of a push back against the two reports according to the NADCP. The groups behind the respective studies contest the timing. They indicated that the reports threaten the professional organization with a vested interested in continuing current policy.

“The initial reaction from drug court folks is offense. You know, they’re hurt, they feel attacked and frankly because they haven’t had a chance to read the report, they’re missing things that we’d probably agree on,” she said.

Following the release of the DPA, the NADCP hit back, saying that the “reason [the DPA is] targeting one of the most effective programs for treating substance abuse is not difficult to fathom. The NADCP said that “Drug Courts are a principal obstacle” for both drug decriminalization and legalization advocates.

Both the drug court advocates and decriminalization advocates stress the idea of addiction as a health issue — like a disease on par with cancer — and both groups have stressed that the problem should be addressed on its own rather than bundled up with other crimes. With a struggling economy, both sides are also noting how focused drug policies are lessening the state’s financial burden.

It seems its just the second part of the phrase “drug court” that they disagree on, which is as different as saying “Martin Sheen” or “Charlie Sheen.”

Email Jeff Winkler and follow him on Twitter.