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VI. Looking Toward the Future

The resolution on problem-solving courts adopted by the CCJ and COSCA is one of several developments since the May 2000 focus group meeting that are relevant to the topic of institutionalizing drug courts. In New York, for example, a special commission on drugs and the courts submitted a report to New York’s chief judge in June 2000 that called for the State’s office of court administration to take the lead in launching a systematic statewide approach to the delivery of “coerced” treatment to nonviolent addicts in every jurisdiction. In November 2000, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, a measure that mandates people convicted of a first or second offense of drug possession or use to be sentenced to probation and drug treatment instead of prison.

In several States, legislatures are reexamining statutes that impose harsh mandatory punishment for possession of small amounts of illegal substances. This movement received further impetus in August 2001, when the American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates adopted two resolutions—one endorsing the principles and methods used by problem-solving courts, the other establishing a new ABA standard (part of the ABA’s Trial Court Standards) on procedures in drug treatment courts—that explicitly acknowledged the accomplishments of drug courts and their effectiveness in reducing substance abuse and criminal behavior.

Together, these developments suggest a major shift in the thinking of leading policymakers, criminal justice practitioners, the legal community, and the general public concerning the appropriate societal response to drug-abusing behavior. Treatment is increasingly being regarded as a desirable (and much less expensive) alternative to incarceration, with drug courts recognized as a model for effectively handling cases involving nonviolent substance abusers.

Drug courts have clearly played a major role in catalyzing these shifts in thought and policy by demonstrating that a significant percentage of people who come into the justice system because of their drug-abusing behavior can—with appropriate supervision, testing and treatment services, and judicious use of sanctions and incentives—change their lifestyles and become productive and law-abiding citizens. In a sense, these shifts themselves represent a kind of institutionalizing of drug courts.

In the future, however, the challenges for drug courts may be even greater. If movement away from incarceration as a response to drug abuse continues, there may be pressure to further expand the scope of drug courts to handle more substance-involved offenders. Alternatively (and perhaps simultaneously), there may be greater reliance on treatment alone and movement away from reliance on criminal justice processes and the drug court model as a preferred response to nonviolent substance abuse, at least for those who have little or no previous criminal record. The developments since May 2000 suggest that either or both of these directions could be taken by jurisdictions as they reconsider their policies in this area.

In any event, neither treatment nor justice system resources are unlimited. Differentiating cases more carefully when they first enter the justice system, and using the limited resources more effectively will be increasingly important. To facilitate more effective targeting of available resources, drug court practitioners need information early on about the nature and seriousness of an individual’s substance abuse problem and about the individual’s prior record and other factors relevant to gauging risk and need.

The precise direction that policy and practice will take in future years is difficult—perhaps impossible—to predict and will probably vary across jurisdictions. However, the basic concepts and techniques developed in drug courts will provide a foundation for various approaches to addressing the issues of cases that involve people with substance abuse problems. Considering the progress of the past decade, much has been accomplished by drug courts, both for the individuals whose lives have been reclaimed and for the communities in which these courts function. Drug courts have also changed public attitudes and justice system practices with respect to cases involving people with substance abuse problems.

Drug courts have accomplished a great deal in a short period, yet much remains to be done and new obstacles will arise. In light of the accomplishments to date and the issues still ahead, institutionalization can perhaps best be viewed not as an end in itself, but as an ongoing process replete with new challenges.

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  Institutionalizing Drug Courts March 2002