Terese J. Singer

Are Drug Courts Denying Help to Those Who Need it Most?

Published: 2009-12-15

Article provided by Reddin & Singer, LLP
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Wisconsin created drug courts to give certain nonviolent offenders a productive alternative to prison. The idea was to give offenders the drug addiction treatment they needed and save the state money by reducing prison costs. A recent report, however, says the courts are denying help to the offenders who need treatment the most.

A report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) says some drug courts offer treatment only to those offenders most likely to successfully complete the program. This practice, called "skimming," makes the courts appear extremely effective, the report contends.

"Most Bang for the Buck"

In an article in the Wisconsin Law Journal, judges argued that their courts aren't cherry-picking candidates. Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Barbara H. Key said her court is taking "tough cookies" into its treatment program.

Key said, "Our program is heavily [invested] in taking candidates who would not necessarily be considered likely to succeed."

However, Key admitted that because of limited resources, the court is often forced to focus on candidates who offer "the most bang for the buck."

Inconclusive Statistics

A look at statistics gathered by some of the drug courts shows mixed results.

The Winnebago court has had 19 nonviolent offenders complete its program in its three years. Of the more than 60 participants as of last year, about a third had been dismissed from the program for noncompliance with court-ordered treatment plans.

A recent study by Temple University examined the success of the Waukesha County alcohol treatment court for people with third-offense DUI convictions. Of the 141 program enrollees in the court's three years, 29 percent reoffended after completing the program. That rate is opposed to the 45 percent recidivism among the 81 people denied entry to the program for lack of space.

In Milwaukee County, the district attorney began a drug court program to allow diversion or deferred prosecution in 2006. By the end of 2007, more than 700 low-level offenders had been granted diversion or deferred prosecution, with a 65 percent success rate.

Court Expansion?

The NACDL report recommends opening the courts to a wider range of offenders.

Key said she's not aware of any significant opposition to the concept of expanding the scope of the court - perhaps even to include some violent offenders - but says expansion is dependent on county funding.

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