Drug Use and the Law …Alternative Sentencing

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Addiction is a fierce master.  It can drive you to lie, cheat and even steal, just to feed the beast.  Almost all of us have heard stories to that effect, many of us know someone driven to such madness and sadly, for some, I might be speaking directly to you.  It is a road of personal sorrow that can even overcome your most powerful fears, like losing a job a family, or even going to jail.  It’s powerful stuff.  And that last part, jail, is playing an ever increasing role, with a 2016 study by the National Drug Court Institute noting that over 127,000 people were sentenced using drug courts in 2014.

Our new normal has hundreds of thousands of drug addicts and alcoholics flowing through the criminal justice system for committing acts stemming from their addiction.  Most are warehoused in prisons in a state of involuntarily sobriety but without any substantive treatment.  You probably even have a friend or family member now in the system.  Most return to the same lifestyle they were in prior to incarceration and end up repeating the same behaviors all over again.  It is a huge waste of taxpayer money, compounded by the social cost of so many people out of the workplace.

State and County courts began experimenting with treatment related programs commonly known as ‘diversion’, almost 30 years ago, as a form of alternative sentencing.  The Federal Court in the Central District of California began successfully copying that model in 2012 and the Federal Government is planning on expanding some form of it nationwide, under a $1 billion mental health and substance abuse law enacted in early 2017 – The 21st Century Cures Act. Diversion is essentially court ordered treatment, offered as an attractive carrot to addicted defendants who qualify.  It is also backed up by a substantial stick in the form of imprisonment, should the defendant fail to comply with the program.  Perhaps you’ve seen the movie 28 Days starring Sandra Bullock.  That’s a good example of how it works.  Programs can last as long as two years and include regular check-ins and random drug tests.  As you can imagine, diversion programs tend to have a very high success rate because, after all, when you are faced with the stark reality, standing ashamed in a majestic courtroom – who really wants to go to prison?

Diversion is limited to non-violent, low-level offenders who do not have a prior criminal record.  They must demonstrate the capability to benefit from the program, complete an evaluation by a mental health professional and show they are truly committed to getting sober and staying clean.  If you, or a loved one, find yourself in the unfortunate situation of involvement in a crime as a result of drug abuse, please mention the option of diversion to your attorney or court appointed public defender, so they can pursue that as an option on your behalf.

This type of sentencing actually offers a lot of benefits to the community as well.  It helps to relieve congestion in the courts already wrestling with overcrowding, and addresses the root cause of those particular crimes as opposed to just treating the symptoms.  It also allows members to remain in the community, contribute to society and provide for their families who might otherwise apply for public assistance programs.  Finally, it keeps them with their kids to help eliminate the persistent cycle of crime that all too often gets handed down from generation-to-generation.  In the overall scheme of things, diversion is a much more cost-effective option than incarceration.

Let’s face it, drugs can turn the best of us into criminals, under the wrong set of circumstances.  For many, these diversion programs are the first opportunity they’ve ever had to receive medically supervised rehabilitation.  That, combined with the significant consequence of non-compliance, makes people take the program very seriously, with a 50-75% average graduation rate  However, if I could change anything, I would recommend extending supervision under the program out to a total of 5 years.  Studies have proven that this length of aftercare is what’s required to drive relapse rates below 15%.  Expanding use of alternative sentencing options, along with enduring aftercare, will go a long way toward saving the lives of addicts while benefitting society at the same time.

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