A courtroom is not a place where you would expect to find scenes of celebration and tears of joy. Unless, of course, it is drug court.
This May, over 3,000 drug courts and other treatment courts nationwide will celebrate National Drug Court Month and the most successful justice innovation in American history.
By May 31, thousands of individuals who entered the justice system due to addiction will receive life-saving treatment and the chance to repair their lives, reconnect with their families, and find long-term recovery.
National Drug Court Month is not just a celebration of the lives that have been restored by drug court. It sends the powerful message that these programs must be expanded to reach more people in need.
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Nearly 30 years ago, the first treatment court opened its doors with a simple premise: rather than continue to allow individuals with long histories of addiction and crime to cycle through the justice system at great expense to the public, use the leverage of the court to keep them engaged in treatment long enough to be successful.
Today, treatment courts and have proven that a combination of accountability and compassion can not only save lives, but can also save valuable resources and reduce exorbitant criminal justice costs.
Treatment courts have become the cornerstone of justice reform efforts aimed at reducing incarceration and protecting public safety. We can all agree that our most dangerous criminals belong in prison, but without interventions like treatment court it can be difficult to separate them from the men and women whose criminal behavior is linked to an addiction or mental health disorder.
I recently met a young woman who became addicted as a teenager and began stealing to support her habit. She had been arrested numerous times, but nothing changed. She would pledge to do better, but always – her addiction called to her. Her old friends came by, and she was back in the same situation – and then arrested again. She was facing years in prison when a judge decided to try a new approach - drug court.
In drug court, she met regularly with a case manager and participated in rigorous treatment and counseling. With the help of the treatment court team, including community based treatment providers, she began to put the pieces of her life back together. While in the program she enrolled in college and found part-time work. She graduated drug court and went on to earn her degree.
Today, no criminal record holds her back. She is happy and healthy, employed, and contributing to the community.
She is one of thousands of treatment court graduates. Her story, and those of so many others, demonstrate why drug courts are so critical in the effort to address addiction and related crime. But if you are looking for research, drug courts have that too. Numerous studies have found drug courts reduce crime and drug use, while saving money. They also improve education, employment, housing, and financial stability. They support family reunification while reducing foster care placements.
Treatment courts represent a compassionate approach to the ravages of addiction. This year’s National Drug Court Month celebration signals that the time is now to reap the economic and societal benefits of expanding this proven budget solution to all in need. More communities need drug courts and more people struggling with addiction need treatment, not just incarceration.
Melissa Fitzgerald is the director of Advancing Justice, an initiative to lead evidence-based justice reform. She appeared on the NBC hit show, “The West Wing,” for seven seasons.