Drug courts successful for few who get in

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2009 4:36 AM

In a five-year span, Candice Singer went from being a respected juvenile defense lawyer to a homeless meth addict who once broke into a house just to take a shower.

By the time she was arrested, Singer was charged with 24 separate burglaries and with cooking meth in her mother's house. She could have spent at least five years in prison, but her lawyer was able to steer her to a New Jersey drug court that kept her in treatment instead of behind bars.

"I credit drug court with saving my life," Singer, 49, says. "If I had gone to prison, I would have continued to use drugs when I got out. I would probably be dead."

It's been 20 years since the first drug court was established in Miami as an innovative way of getting nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system and into court-supervised drug rehabilitation programs. Since then more than 2,300 drug courts have blossomed around the country, credited with reducing crime and saving the cost of locking people up.

Despite that success, the specialized courts remain available to less than 10 percent of the 1.2 million drug-addicted offenders. The Obama administration wants to boost funding so that hundreds more courts can begin work.

"There are a lot of people who need these programs and there aren't enough spaces," said Doug Marlowe, chief of science, policy and law at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The main problem, advocates say, is a lack of money. While every state has at least one drug court, only a handful of states _ like New York and New Jersey _ have one in every county.

Drug courts received about $64 million in federal money this year. Congress could push funding over $100 million next year.

But it would take a much bigger infusion of federal dollars to build a true national network of drug courts. The drug court association says $1.5 billion over six years _ along with matching money from states _ could treat all who need it now.

"It's always difficult to get people to understand that if you spend this much money, there will be this much money in savings," said Gil Kerlikowske, the White House drug czar.

In Singer's case, the trouble began in her teens when she was using alcohol, cocaine and heroin. She completed an outpatient program in her early 20s and spent the next 15 years drug free. But Singer still had underlying depression and anxiety issues that only got worse under the daily pressures of being an attorney. Soon, she turned to meth and her life unraveled.

She is now among 75 percent of drug court graduates who remain arrest-free for at least two years after leaving the program.

At the same time, the proliferation of drug courts is raising new concerns about fairness. A September report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers claims that prosecutors tend to cherry pick the easy cases for drug courts, shunning defendants with deeper addiction problems. The report also questions a requirement that defendants plead guilty before being allowed into drug courts.

"Unfortunately, many of these courts are conviction mills, which treat substance abusers as criminals and give them access to medical treatment only if they plead guilty and acquire a criminal record," said Cynthia Orr, president of the lawyers group.

Under the system, the guilty plea is held in abeyance during months or years of court-supervised treatment, weekly meetings and counseling sessions. But if they fail, defendants are kicked out of the program and must serve jail for the crime. Orr says some defendants can face a harsher sentence at the end of an unsuccessful treatment program than if they had just accepted a plea deal and avoided drug court.

That could have been the case for Singer, who says she faced up to 87 years in prison if she had not succeeded in drug court. Had she not entered drug court, she would have served five years through a plea agreement.

Marlowe concedes that some prosecutors avoid the tough cases.

But he said there's no way prosecutors would ever take serious offenders into a diversion program without having them first plead guilty. It can be months before they know whether the program will be successful, he said, and it's too hard to prosecute a case months later when evidence is stale and witnesses are lost.

Singer now does legislative and lobbying work at the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. She has been clean for seven years and has a 2-year-old daughter.