Politicians always have talking points when it comes to criminal justice reform, but few have actual policy solutions that will move the ball forward. This past Thursday, Senator Cory Booker introduced a criminal justice reform bill known as the Next Step Act. Its goal is to build off the momentum of the First Step Act, which was signed into law late last year. However, despite the success of the First Step Act, it is unlikely that future criminal justice reform will occur at the federal level. Reform is much more likely to occur at the state level. One policy solution state legislatures should consider is the adoption of drug courts, a reform that has been wildly successful in Florida.
Drug Courts Have Historical Precedence of Success
The goal of criminal justice reform is to effectively reduce criminal activity while protecting the rights of the individual. While there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to criminal justice reform, the introduction of drug courts is one step in the right direction.
These pre-trial courts offer an alternative to the standard criminal justice system for non-violent, drug-related offenses. If the goal of criminal justice reform is to effectively reduce criminal activity while protecting the rights of the individual, drug courts are an efficient and cost-effective way of achieving that.
Whether you are concerned about the rights of the accused or simply want to reduce the cost of criminal activity on society, drug courts achieve their mission. The movement supporting this type of criminal justice reform began in Florida during the late 1980s and should be replicated across the country.
The recidivism rate among individuals who had completed a drug court sentence was half that of their criminal justice counterparts.
Florida Statute 397.334 allows for certain non-violent individuals to be voluntarily diverted from the criminal justice system into a pre-trial drug court. These courts are focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment and allow judges to prescribe supervised treatment rather than traditional criminal sanctions. An individual who voluntarily agrees to go before a drug court receives the possibility of reduced sentences.
However, these individuals also face the possibility of increased sentences should they violate a court order in a way that requires them to re-enter the criminal justice system. Drug courts assign probation or court-supervised parole, which is often accompanied by a reintegration program. Such programs are focused on helping individuals overcome addiction, build job skills, and reenter the community as a productive member of society.
Greater Access to Rehabilitation
Drug courts are a preferable alternative to our current system, which is expensive, faulty, and burdensome. In contrast to the status quo, drug courts allow for said offenders to get the treatment and help they need while still holding them accountable for their actions. In this way, drug courts provide a way to reintegrate these individuals into society without incentivizing more criminal activity. Since drug courts are completely voluntary, they foster a justice system that treats the accused like human beings and provides them with more choice over their lives.
Although critics of drug courts might allege that drug-related offenders are more likely to commit crimes if they receive lighter sentences, the facts show otherwise.
Introduces Stronger Incentives Which In Turn Reduces Recidivism
Individuals who voluntarily participate in these programs face larger sentences if they violate court orders and are forced to go back into the criminal justice system. Because of this, there is actually a strong incentive not to engage in more criminal activity. In fact, the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA) analyzed felony conviction data through October 2013 and found that the recidivism rate among individuals who had completed a drug court sentence was half that of their criminal justice counterparts.
Fortunately, this is also a cost-effective way of combating drug abuse. The OPPAGA also found that the average cost per individual who completed a drug court sentence was $16,934. This is less than the average cost of 18 months in prison for a male ($22,548) and significantly less than the average costs of 18 months in prison for a female ($37,386). They found that it would have cost the state over $7.6 million dollars more if all of the individuals who had successfully completed a drug court sentence had gone to prison. This shows not only that drug courts are more effective at preventing criminal activity but also that they do so at less cost to the state.
In the wake of the First Step Act’s success, state legislatures across the country should look to Florida’s drug courts as a model for successful criminal justice reform.