Clear emphasis on drug treatment approaches
President Barack Obama says he wants to treat the nation's drug problem as a public health issue as well as a law enforcement one. So he has said nonviolent drug offenders should be given a chance at rehabilitation over jail.
Along those lines, the administration has supported drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to have their charges dropped if they successfully complete a court-monitored treatment program. We rated Obama's promise to enhance drug courts as a Compromise, because while federal funding has increased and the number of drug courts has grown by about 400 during his term to more than 2,700, the system has not expanded into the federal courts system as Obama pledged.
"These courts are a perfect example of how we're working to shift our emphasis to treat the nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue,” Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in an email. "(The National Association of Drug Court Professionals) estimates that we send roughly 120,000 people into treatment instead of prison each year – and that number will continue to rise as more courts open.”
Lemaitre also pointed to other progress on emphasizing rehabilitation for drug offenders:
• Last fiscal year, the Obama administration spent $10.4 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs compared with $9.2 billion on domestic drug enforcement.
• Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 into law that dramatically reduced a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, which disproportionately affected minorities. His administration also advocated for, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved, the retroactive application of these sentencing guidelines which became effective last year.
• The administration has worked to clarify rules regarding the eligibility of housing authorities to allow ex-offenders access to public housing, excluding individuals convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing and registered sex offenders.
• Attorney General Eric Holder has urged state officials to review the legal collateral consequences of state laws that hinder ex-offenders' successful reentry into society.
• The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in November that for the third straight year the nation's prison and jail population decreased.
Lemaitre said the White House is also keeping an eye on research and pilot programs that test alternative approaches to drug enforcement. In Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, probationers receive swift and predictable sanctions -- typically several days in jail -- for violations such as detected drug use or missed appointments with a probation officer. Evaluations indicate the program is resulting in fewer positive drug tests and new arrests.
The Drug Market Intervention program takes a different approach to cleaning up high-drug areas. Instead of swooping in, making arrests and prosecuting every offender. Lemaitre said the program separates first-time offenders and those with substance-abuse problems. Those people are offered a second chance if they participate in drug treatment and other community services.
"This community-based diversion strategy has shown tremendous promise in disrupting open-air drug markets,” Lemaitre said.
Obama's promise to send low-level drug offenders to rehab instead of jail is a tough one to assess, but we think it's clear the administration has put resources behind its rhetoric and is trying new approaches to breaking the interconnected cycle of drugs and crime. We rate this a Promise Kept.
PolitiFact, "Drug courts are expanding, though not in federal system,” Dec. 5, 2012
Email and phone interview with Rafael Lemaitre, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Dec. 6, 2012
THOMAS, Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, introduced Oct. 15, 2009
National Institute of Justice, "'Swift and Certain' Sanctions in Probation Are Highly Effective: Evaluation of the HOPE Program,” accessed Dec. 6, 2012
Friends of HOPE, Program Evaluation Results, accessed Dec. 6, 2012
Michigan State University, "Drug Market Intervention,” accessed Dec. 6, 2012
Interview with Christopher Deutsch, National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Dec. 5, 2012
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "Drug Courts: A Smart Approach to Criminal Justice,” May 2011
Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2011,” November 2012
Obama's Drug Czar signals support for rehabilitation
Part of President Barack Obama's crime platform was a promise to rehabilitate first-time drug offenders.
Right off the bat, this seemed like a tough promise to measure, as it deals with a nationwide system of "drug courts" that divert nonviolent, substance abusing offenders from prison and jail into treatment. Such courts have been around for nearly 20 years; to date there are 2,140 drug courts in operation with another 284 being planned or developed in 50 states and the District of Columbia.
So, Obama won't be breaking a lot of new ground on that front.
However, there was a lot of ink given to former Seattle police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, the man whom Obama picked to oversee the nation's fight against drugs. He has a history of favoring treatment for some drug offenders, as does his deputy, A. Thomas McLellan, who has been a leader in the area of addiction and treatment research.
In the same speech to announce Kerlikowske as Obama's pick, Vice President Joe Biden took the opportunity to reiterate the administration's commitment to rehabilitation.
"We know about the nexus between drug abuse and crime," he said in March, 2009. "That's why the drug courts I spoke about are so important -- as are prisoner re-entry programs –- because these can serve as the light at the end of a tunnel, a very long, long, dark tunnel, for those who are stuck in the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration."
Since then, drug courts and the need for rehabilitation have been key talking points for Kerlikowske. For instance, a report released in May 2009 that indicated most people arrested for a crime also tested positive for drugs "tells us that we must concentrate our resources on programs that have been proven to break the cycle of drugs and crime," Kerlikowske said. "Incarcerating offenders without treating underlying substance-abuse problems simply defers the time when they are released back into our communities to start harming themselves and our communities again. Research shows that recidivism rates go down substantially among those who undergo treatment and recovery support services in the criminal justice system. President Obama and Vice President Biden support the expansion of drug courts, which divert nonviolent offenders to drug rehabilitation programs."
His office has also been busy requesting drug court reviews from the Government Accountability Office and issuing a national report card on the system.
So, it's clear that Obama is committed to drug treatment in lieu of prison, but we're curious to see if this commitment translates into some concrete policy changes. For now, we're rating this promise In the Works.
The New York Times, Transcript: Biden Announces Drug Czar, accessed Jan. 13, 2010
Office of National Drug Control Policy, accessed Jan. 13, 2010
The Washington Post, Choice of Drug Czar Indicates Focus on Treatment, Not Jail, by Carrie Johnson and Amy Goldstein, March 12, 2009
The Associated Press, US Prison Population Faces Firsst Drop Since 1972, Jeff Carlton, Dec. 20, 2009
Office of National Drug Policy Control, backgrounder on drug courts, accessed Jan. 13, 2010