Speaking to the American Bar Association in San Francisco today, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no gang ties will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory prison sentences.
Holder's action is hardly a new approach. What he is advocating is drug courts, a concept that is growing nationally.
Perhaps the time has come for more jurisdictions to adopt the drug court concept locally as well.
In 1989 the first so-called drug court was established in the United States in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Since that time, drug courts have sprung up in all 50 states and now number nearly 2,500. We believe the time has come to establish such drug courts locally.
Drug courts are judicially supervised courts whose primary responsibility is to handle nonviolent substance abuse offenses.
Instead of going through the traditional criminal justice system, which often involves jail or even prison sentences, drug courts offer nonviolent offenders the option of substance abuse treatment.
Over the past few decades the number of drug related prison sentences has continued to grow with little or no impact on the problem of drug addiction itself.
It should be pointed out that drug courts are not a "slap on the wrist" or a "free pass" for substance abuse offenders. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts keep offenders in treatment long enough for it to work while under close supervision. In a typical case, for a minimum of a year participants are provided with intensive treatment and other substance abuse services required to get clean and sober. They are held accountable by the drug court judge for meeting their obligations to the court, their families and other invested parties. They face regular and random drug testing and are required to appear in court frequently so the judge can review their progress.
As an incentive drug offenders may be rewarded for doing well or sanctioned if they do not live up to expectations.
The benefits to the local communities are many. It reduces in the number of nonviolent offenders serving time in local jails, certainly lessens the financial burden on the county and after successfully completing a treatment program, individuals are free to live productive lives, contributing to the betterment of their communities.
Last fall Marquette County expanded their successful Sobriety Court to include drug court components. If the newly named Treatment Court has anywhere near the succes of the Sobriety Court it certainly would be considered a good move.
According to the Mining Journal of Marquette, of the 89 Sobriety Court participants since 2004, only 1 was arrested again for drunken driving. There's no reason to believe adding a drug court component will not be met with similar success.
We applaud the expansion in Marquette County and the recent creation of a drug court by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and we hope neighboring jurisdictions throughout the Western Upper Peninsula make similar moves in the very near future.