New York’s courts and prisons are being overwhelmed by drug cases. Last year, 43,396 people were arrested and nearly six thousand indicted on felony drug charges in New York City. The state prison population has more than doubled over the last decade, due mainly to mandatory sentencing laws and an increasing number of drug prosecutions. The city’s Correction Department estimates that 70 percent of its roughly 22,000 inmates are charged with drug-related crimes. The cost is high: Last year, the state’s Office of Court Administration requested an additional $40 million just to cover the expense of drug cases. Since the advent of crack a decade ago, the city has hired nine thousand new cops and seven hundred assistant district attorneys and has added 18,000 cells on Rikers Island. The total cost: $591 million a year.
One promising solution to these problems is the use of drug treatment as an alternative to prison. A study of ten thousand addicts, commissioned in 1990 by New York State, found that drug treatment leads to substantial and prolonged reductions in drug abuse and criminal behavior. But the city’s drug-treatment programs are generally ineffective because they are either too strict or not strict enough. A handful of addicts in New York are in court-run drug treatment programs and many others have entered independent treatment programs as a way to avoid prison. But if they slide back into drug use (which is common, according to drug-treatment professionals), they are immediately subject to imprisonment. Thus, these programs only work for those—perhaps half of all addicts—who are able to quit immediately. Private, subsidized treatment centers are available for addicts who have not been charged with a crime, but these programs impose no real discipline on their clients. When drug users run out of money, they often enter these programs in order to receive free lodging and meals while awaiting the next welfare check, which pays for another fix.
What could New York do to get addicts off drugs? An innovative program begun in 1989 in Dade County, Florida, offers a model. A separate court, known as the Miami Drug Court, handles nearly all felony drug possession cases in which the defendants have no violent felony record. Defendants have the option to be prosecuted in the usual criminal courts, where cases involving drug sale or trafficking are also tried. But Drug Court, which allows defendants to escape prosecution if they get off drugs, has lightened the criminal caseload by more than two thousand cases per year.
Hugh Rodham, the public defender assigned to Drug Court, says the court presumes that anyone charged with felony drug possession—defined in Florida as possession of any controlled substance, other than small quantities of marijuana—is an addict. (Exceptions are occasionally made for defendants who do not have a drug problem but were caught holding drugs for a friend.)
A Drug Court defendant is required to enter a treatment program lasting at least a year. His case is kept open during that time; charges are dismissed and the record sealed upon successful completion of treatment, which consists of three phases. In the first, the defendant is held for up to three weeks in the county jail, segregated from other inmates, to clear his system of drugs. During that time he undergoes daily counseling, urine analysis, and acupuncture, which is said to be the most effective treatment for cocaine addiction. The defendant is then released, but must attend individual or group-counseling sessions seven days a week, usually for three to four months. In the final stage of treatment, counseling is cut back to two or three times a week and the defendant receives job training and referral services. Counseling and other services are provided by a combination of private organizations and public agencies.
During the latter two stages, most defendants live at home and receive outpatient treatment, according to Tim Murray, the county’s director of substance abuse policy. Most of those in the program, Murray adds, have at least part-time jobs, and the treatment is scheduled to accommodate them.
Defendants’ progress is closely monitored by the court. The judge receives weekly reports on each defendant, including the results of randomly administered urine tests. If a defendant regresses, treatment may revert to one of the earlier stages, including detoxification in the county jail. But defendants cannot be expelled from the program unless they make no effort at treatment or are arrested for a violent felony.
The results are impressive: Prior to the creation of the Drug Court, Murray says, 33 percent of drug defendants were rearrested on felony charges within a year. Of the 1,300 people currently in the program, the rate is only 7 percent; among the 4,600 who have successfully completed treatment, 3 percent.
Drug rehabilitation experts cite three major reasons for Drug Court’s success. First, the program treats relapse as part of the process of addiction, rather than as cause for ending the treatment. Second, the program imposes the external discipline addicts need to break their habit. Third, the course of treatment is tailored to the individual needs of each defendant, with the court exercising control only when an addict falls his urine test.
Murray says the county may expand the Drug Court program to include defendants arrested for nonviolent crimes other than drug possession—for example, burglary or passing bad checks—when the crime was committed in order to support a drug habit. Such defendants could also be required to make restitution to their victims.
Six other cities—Mobile, Oakland, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Dayton, and Portland, Oregon—have begun or plan to begin programs similar to Miami’s Drug Court.
New York, meanwhile, has fewer than 150 defendants in court-run drug treatment programs. There are two such programs: Drug Treatment Alternatives to Prison (DTAP), run by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, and a cooperative effort with the Fortune Society, which provides treatment for only twenty addicts.
DTAP, which may soon be expanded to the other four boroughs, is only open to nonviolent predicate felons—those with at least two previous convictions—who have been caught in “buy and bust” stings and are approved by several law-enforcement offices and the drug-treatment provider. Predicate felons face mandatory prison terms under New York law, while first offenders are rarely prosecuted. One prosecutor notes that in order to be convicted twice, a felon usually has to be arrested four times. Charges are usually dismissed for the first offense; the second is plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor. “Why can’t we go in and help someone before they commit five felonies, if all they have is a drug problem?” the prosecutor asks. It seems likely, too, that first offenders would be easier to treat than those who have been through the system repeatedly and are presumably more deeply involved with drugs.
Another problem with DTAP is expense. The program provides its clients long-term residential care—including room, board, and round-the-clock supervision—at a cost of $16,000 a year. This is far cheaper than the $56,210 annual cost of incarceration. But Dade County’s Drug Court program treats 1,300 addicts at an annual cost of $910,000-$700 per patient. The program is so economical largely because most of the treatment it offers is on an out-patient basis. In addition, defendants in Drug Court are required to bear part of the cost of their treatment, depending on their ability to pay.
Funding problems have stalled plans in New York City to institute another program known as ASPIRE (Alternative Sentencing Pre-Indictment Rehabilitation Effort). This program would provide outpatient treatment to fifty drug-addicted, nonviolent predicate felons who pass an evaluation administered by the Court Employment Project.
New York should set up a Miami-style Drug Court of its own, open to all defendants charged with drug possession who have no record of violent felonies. (Those who have pending violent felony cases could be tried on those charges and, if convicted, enrolled in prison-based treatment programs, which are currently available in the state’s correctional institutions.)
According to the state’s Division of Substance Abuse Services, it costs about $4,000 a year in New York to provide drug treatment for an addict. There were roughly 17,000 felony drug possession arrests in the city last year, so the annual cost of treatment would be about $68 million. There are some six thousand vacant outpatient slots in drug-treatment centers citywide, so a Drug Court program would require the creation of roughly 11,000 new slots, at a one-time cost estimated by the Division of Substance Abuse Services to be $44 million.
Despite these costs, the savings would be substantial. Because the system is overburdened, most felony drug possession arrests never lead to indictments, according to Eric Pomerantz of the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office. But suspects are held in pretrial detention, at a cost of $158 per day, for an average of 46 days, according to the city s Correction Department. That means the cost to the city for incarcerating drug suspects who are never prosecuted is as high as $124 million a year. An effective drug-treatment program would save millions and deal compassionately with addicts without letting felons off the hook.