By Jeff Adachi
Printed in SF Bay Guardian, February 2005
Thirty years after President Richard Nixon declared the national War on Drugs, this country is spending upwards of $50 billion each year to fight drug crime, abuse and addiction, continuing to pour money into another losing war, albeit, here at home. Of the 2 million inmates incarcerated in state and federal prisons, 500,000 are incarcerated for drug offenses. In San Francisco, currently one-half of all prisoners in the county’s jail are being held for drug crimes. However, there is one bright light of sanity: an experiment that came to be known as Drug Court —- an intensive, community-based treatment, rehabilitation and supervision program for felony drug defendants —- has now blossomed into 350 courts, in 49 of the 50 states. Since 1990, over 140,000 drug-addicted persons have entered drug court programs and more than 70% are either still enrolled or have graduated.
In San Francisco, persons charged with certain specified drug offenses have the option of entering a one-year treatment program, which often includes residential or outpatient treatment, mandatory counseling, drug testing three-times a week and regular court appearances to check-in. Most graduates have spent at least eighteen months in drug court. Participants are also encouraged to obtain a high school or GED certificate, maintain employment and be current in all financial obligations, such as child support.
San Francisco’s Drug Court is unique in that it permits persons charged with sales offenses involving small amounts of narcotics or those charged with “possession for sale” to participate. Many courts have limited participation to those charged with possession offenses only, arguing that those who sell drugs should not be allowed to benefit from Drug Court’s rehabilitative programs. San Francisco’s approach recognizes that there are often persons who sell drugs in order to feed their habits, and that society has an interest in offering treatment to sellers who are addicted to drugs.
Recently, San Francisco’s Drug Court has come under attack. Media reports, fueled by Drug Court’s detractors, declared that Drug Court was a “Haven for Dope Dealers,” suggesting that anyone with a history of selling drugs should be excluded. Concerns were also raised that drug dealers were coming to San Francisco because of its policy of admitting persons charged with sales offenses. These reports gave the impression that Drug Court was inappropriately offering treatment to drug dealers and therefore contributing to increased drug activity in the City. These attacks come at a time when the Bush administration plans to eliminate the funding source that makes Drug Courts possible.
These reports cannot be further from the truth. First, Drug Court should be judged on its success. Of the hundreds of people who have graduated from Drug Court, less than 15% have re-offended within a two-year period following their graduation from the program. This compares to a 51 % recidivism rate for persons convicted of drug offenses who do not participate in Drug Court. As for big-time drug dealers being admitted to the program, the statistics show that most persons are there for selling small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, in most cases $20 or less. Finally, as to ‘out-of-town’ dealers flocking to San Francisco to sell drugs because of Drug Court, less than 16% of all defendants admitted to Drug Court with sales cases have out of county addresses.
However, the positive outcomes of Drug Court cannot be measured by statistics alone. When one considers the impact of hundreds of drug-free babies to drug court participants, the re-unification of families torn apart by drugs, and the value of the educational and vocational training provided, it becomes clear that Drug Courts need to be expanded, not reduced. Indeed, the Drug Court “movement” may be America’s only true solution to ending the War on Drugs.
Jeff Adachi is the SF public defender. Drug Court celebrates its 10th Anniversary on March 15, 2005, at Delancey Street in SF. Please call (415) 553-9855 for more information.