It was a proud moment for Eagles coach Andy Reid this summer when his son "graduated" from drug-court supervision. But a new study makes a valid argument that guys like Britt Reid shouldn't be referred to that type of prison-alternative program.
Britt Reid, 24, spent 15 months under supervision of the Montgomery County Drug Court. In 2007, he was arrested after flashing a gun at another motorist. Small amounts of cocaine and marijuana were found in his truck. While free on bail, he failed a sobriety test and Vicodin was found in his car.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers conducted the two-year study that says drug courts too often suck up a community's drug-treatment funds to use on nonviolent criminals like Britt Reid, who may have their own resources to deal with their addictions.
Meanwhile, other defendants, including men arrested for domestic violence whose acts are clearly related to their addictions, are denied entry into a drug-court program that would address their drug or alcohol abuse.
"Too often, the criteria and process for admission into drug court is guided by tough-on-crime politics, focusing on first-time or nonviolent offenders, with little consideration of smart-on-crime approaches that target those most in need of treatment," said the defense lawyers' report.
It said well-intended prosecutors and judges, typically with little input from the defense bar, often limit drug-court participation to those offenders who are more likely to solve their own abuse problems - while insisting that "harder cases" go to jail, at considerable taxpayer expense.
Noting the tendency to favor "a more privileged socioeconomic group," the report also said that prosecutors too often are reluctant to refer anyone to drug court who might hurt their political careers if he commits more crimes.
The lawyers group has called for an extensive review of the 2,100 drug courts nationally, saying they have been in existence 20 years but have neither stymied the rise in drug abuse nor reduced prison costs.
The lawyers also question the ethics of those drug courts that in many cases require defendants to plead guilty to a crime to be eligible for participation. "Drug courts become little more than conviction mills," said the report. It instead recommends pre-plea, pre-adjudication programs that preserve due-process rights and use the possibility of dropped charges as the lure to get defendants to complete the program.
Pennsylvania has 35 drug courts, but only four allow pre-plea participation. New Jersey has 21 drug courts, none of which is a pre-plea program. The report does cite Philadelphia's drug court as raising fewer ethics and due-process concerns because it was created with significant advice from defense lawyers.
To avoid prosecutors' reluctance to make drug-court referrals, the report recommends specific admission criteria be drafted by an independent, diverse panel. That's a good idea. Even better is the proposal that drug abuse be treated as a public-health problem to be handled outside the criminal-justice system.