National Drug Court Month is just around the corner, so I am going to spend this week taking a closer look at some of the claims being made about the effectiveness of drug courts. By next week, the canned press releases will be seeping out all over the news in the form of stories lifted directly from the press kits provided by advocacy groups such as the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Rather astonishingly, the NADCP press kit asserts that “for twenty years, drug courts have saved millions of lives.” Millions? Really? In New York State, which has one of the larger state drug court systems, only 20,400 people have graduated from drug court since the program began, and nobody can say how many of those people stayed sober for more than a few years after they left the scrutiny of the courts. No man is an island, but really — millions of lives?

I do not oppose very limited use of drug (and alcohol) treatment sentencing diversion, but there is a big difference between diverting first-time offenders into treatment programs and the runaway drug court system that exists today. Drug courts have become dumping grounds for all sorts of criminals — including serial offenders and people charged with multiple crimes.

The system is broken when criminal defendants know to say they want help for a substance abuse problem in order to avoid a jail sentence for some other crime. Such was the case with Johnny Dennard, the career criminal in Atlanta assigned to a community-based drug treatment program upon his sixth burglary conviction.

Dennard is precisely the type of person legislators had in mind when they tried to reign in judicial leniency towards repeat offenders. But the fact that he was permitted to walk free from a burglary conviction because he claimed to have a substance abuse problem is only one of the problems with drug courts. Another problem is the quality of the “community-based treatment programs” assigned to treat offenders like Dennard.

There is, of course, a money trail to all of this. When a judge decides that someone who has broken into a dozen houses needs treatment, not incarceration, he or she picks from a list of programs that charge the state to rehabilitate offenders. Some are well-run. Others are scams, often connected to small non-profit organizations and church ministries. Public oversight of the placement choices made by judges is practically nil — another casualty of the secrecy of the courts.

Many people are made happy by this process. The judge has saved the state prison system the cost of incarcerating the offender; the criminal has gotten away without prison time and maybe even cleaned himself up — temporarily — enough to get some fat on the bones; the “service providers” have pocketed some serious cash, and the academicians can write their next study on the efficacy of drug offender programs. Troublingly, some of these studies rely on self-reporting by the very ministers/outreach workers who are profiting from the rehabilitation programs that are being studied.

Everybody is happy, except the people with unnatural attachments to, say, not having their cars stolen and their homes invaded by junkies on a post-intervention-program tear.

About twenty years ago, fresh out of college with a charmingly ineffectual degree in Renaissance Poetry, I found myself accidentally providing rehab for addicts at one such program. To say the least, I had zero qualifications as a counselor, but my boss was getting paid by the federal government to supervise me as a VISTA “community outreach” worker, and he was getting paid (six figures) by the Department of Human Resources to provide “AIDS outreach to under-served populations,” and he was getting paid to provide “rehabilitation services” and “job training” and who knows what else –- many were the people billed for his time. Billing for services, however, is not the same as providing them, which was the primary lesson I learned from my stint with this man (the other being that many “services” serve nobody but the service provider).

Nowadays, when I read about this or that “outreach” program, the image that forms in my head is of a big hand reaching out to grab a bundle of cash.

In order to pretend to fulfill one of the program goals for one of the grants my boss was receiving, I was sent over to a medical center in southwest Atlanta to educate recovering addicts on sexually transmitted diseases: your tax dollars at work. The addicts, many of them prostitutes, were sleepily polite. They were also still high. Some of them were so high, they nodded and nearly fell out of their folding chairs as I went through the pyramid of risky behaviors, which read something like a daily planner for their lives: 9:00 a.m., give unprotected oral sex in a pickup truck; 10:30 a.m., share a needle in the shooting gallery. And so on.

I didn’t belong there, and neither did they, though I learned some skills I later applied while teaching indefinite pronouns in early-morning composition classes. For example, always make sure students are seated close enough to each other that they don’t fall all the way to the ground when they pass out.

But even though I didn’t belong there, somebody (not me – I made $6,000 a year as a VISTA, or domestic Peace Corps worker) was being paid handsomely to “rehabilitate” these poor, crazy drug addicts. I am certain that some of them would have had a better chance at recovery (not to mention personal safety) if they had been sent off to prison, where they would have had a slightly harder time getting drugs and a much better chance of being forced to attend real 12-step programs and real detox programs run by real professionals, not by some community activist who wrote a grant.

To say that community-based programs vary wildly in quality doesn’t scratch at the surface of what I experienced in my year as a VISTA, or what I saw in the neighborhood where Johnny Dennard was released to another program, and where a third church-based rehab has been plying its trade in some very strange ways for over a decade now. More on that tomorrow.

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