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Writing for Prospect, Josh Lowe places himself firmly at the liberal end of the debate over drugs policy. Yet, though his sympathies for decriminalisation are clear, he recognises that the campaign for drug law reform isn’t getting anywhere.

Those of us on the other side of the argument should also recognise that we are stuck with drug laws that aren’t properly enforced and an expensive, but ineffective, correctional policy.

Mr Lowe wants his side to “change tack”:

“Options exist which are humane and considered, but do not require major changes to the law.”

What he has in mind is the American system of drug courts – “specialist courts aimed at directing drug offenders into supervised treatment”:

“Positioned alongside conventional justice institutions, drug-addicted offenders can be sent to drug courts so long as they meet the entry requirements. Different drug courts are set up to address different problems—the National Association of Drug Court Professionals website currently lists 10 variations. ‘Adult drug courts,’ for example, usually accept only nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders of legal age. Veterans Treatment Courts—the newest model, first introduced in New York State in 2008—work with offenders who have served in the military.”

Specialisation (together with the related concept of personalisation) is of key importance here. Conventional courts focus on the crime being tried, when the deeper problem that needs to be addressed lies within the individual who committed it.

Punishing a particular crime is a partial, and possibly futile, exercise unless we also deal with the behaviour and circumstances that lead to patterns of criminal activity  (plus all the other ways in which damaged individuals damage the rest of us):

“Unlike in traditional courts, a drug court judge regularly sees participants for review hearings, rewarding good behaviour or punishing them for failing to reach a specified goal such as finding employment.”

But does it work?

“There is some compelling evidence in support of drug courts, which were first trialled in America in 1989. US studies have shown that 78 per cent of adult drug courts ‘significantly’ decreased crime in their local area, and reduced re-arrest or reconviction rates by between eight and 26 per cent. Some variation in the data is inevitable: drug courts tend to work with local third sector organisations and law enforcement, and as such their effectiveness depends partly on pre-existing infrastructure.”

Improving the “pre-existing infrastructure” will require a complete rethink of the way that welfare and public services are delivered in this country. Decisions need to be made locally, at the level of individual, not by distant and uncoordinated bureaucracies. For people with substance abuse problems, drug courts could be a key link in this localised, joined-up approach.

A huge amount also depends on the type of treatment that is offered. As Russell Brand has argued, the emphasis should be on abstinence-based treatments i.e. getting people off drugs, not maintaining them on substitutes like methadone.

Drug courts are unlikely to find favour with hardliners on either side of the drugs divide. For dogmatic liberalisers, drug courts are still criminal courts and thus criminalise people they regard purely as victims (or merely as pleasure-seekers). On the other side are those who only care about enforcement and punishment and have no time for namby-pamby notions of rehabilitation or treating addicts as human beings.

Faced with a choice between impunity and inhumanity, it’s surely time to find an alternative to both.

6 comments for: Heresy of the week: Drug courts – an idea that both sides in the legalisation debate should agree on

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