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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead December 6, 2012

Drug courts are expanding, though not in federal system

As research mounts showing that drug courts reduce recidivism and save money, government funding has followed.

Drug courts, which steer low-level offenders with addictions into treatment programs instead of jail, operate primarily at the state and local level. President Barack Obama pledged to bring the model to the federal court system. He said he would sign a law "that would authorize federal magistrates to preside over drug courts and federal probation officers to oversee the offenders' compliance with drug treatment programs."

Federal courts do operate a drug court system for defendants after they are released from prison, as part of their parole, but no new law has been passed to establish a system for people prior to incarceration.

But Christopher Deutsch, communications director for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said that handling federal offenders in a drug court model may be an unrealistic notion. Deutsch said that defendants facing drug charges in federal court aren't typically eligible for a drug court-style program -- their charges are generally more serious and potential sentences more severe.

"The model isn't a perfect fit necessarily for federal cases because the federally charged aren't going to be eligible for drug court," Deutsch said. "It's just a little bit tricky when you're dealing with the federal level."

But Deutsch said drug courts at the state and local level have gotten a lot of attention during Obama's term.

They receive funding from numerous sources, but Deutsch said federal money is crucial because states often match their funding to it. The funding pays for drug treatment as well as implementation of new drug courts -- training staff and getting the programs up and running.

In 2008 there were about 2,300 drug courts in the U.S. Today, there are more than 2,700. And Obama's 2013 budget request for drug and other treatment courts is $99.9 million -- $13 million more than what was enacted for 2012.

"The bottom line is the administration has been supportive and Congress has really supported drug court funding and ensured that drug court funding remains a priority," said Deutsch.

In addition, support is growing for treatment courts specifically meant to serve veterans. They operate like state drug courts but in some cases admit offenders with charges involving violence. Deutsch said many veterans suffering from disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related problems are seeing those issues manifest themselves in violent charges. Currently, veterans treatment courts are eligible to apply for drug court funding.

"They're growing at such a rate that we'd really like to see them have a separate funding stream," Deutsch said. "We don't want these programs to have to compete with one another."

There are also a limited number of drug courts that serve juveniles.

While Obama has not fulfilled his promise to establish drug courts in the federal justice system -- an idea that might not be workable anyway -- he has worked to enhance and expand the existing drug court system. Our rating: Compromise.

Our Sources

By Kevin Robillard January 13, 2010

No legislation in sight

Since the first drug court began in Miami in 1989, the specialized courts have been an increasingly popular way for states to treat low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Instead of locking them away and further crowding prisons, these offenders instead have their addictions treated. All 50 states now operate drug courts, and the programs are relatively popular on both sides of the political aisle.

And while grants from the Justice Department fund many of these courts, the federal government doesn't have an equivalent program. During the campaign, Barack Obama promised to change that "by signing a law that would authorize federal magistrates to preside over drug courts and federal probation officers to oversee the offenders' compliance with drug treatment programs." He would "ensure that our federal courts and probation offices have adequate resources to deal with this new program."

A number of Obama's actions have made it clear he supports the idea of drug courts. An appropriations bill passed in December includes $45 million for drug courts, an increase last year, according to Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Attorney General Eric Holder voiced support for them during a congressional hearing. And Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has spoken of a broader strategy of ending the "drug war" and shifting the focus from punishment to treatment.

But no legislation has been introduced doing what Obama promised: creating federal-level drug courts. So for now, we're going to rate this promise Stalled.

Our Sources

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Drug Courts

Newsweek, Drug Courts Appeal to Democrats and Republicans, By Dina Fine Maron, October 7, 2009

The Library of Congress, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010, December 13, 2009

E-mail interview with Christopher Deutsch, National Association of Drug Court Professionals

Congressional Quarterly Transcripts, Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Justice Department Oversight, November 18, 2009

Wall Street Journal, White House Czar Calls for End to 'War on Drugs,' By Gary Fields, May 14, 2009

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