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Our View: Drug court offers hope over despair

Updated: May 8, 2013 6:48AM



While Illinois imprisons thousands for non-violent drug offenses, it finds a different way to lead a lucky few back to productive lives through the drug court system.

Drug courts —not just in Illinois but in most progressive states — involve the legal system giving those charged with minor drug crimes a chance to rehabilitate through a highly structured and closely monitored program. They’re a great idea that should be more widely used.

Participants commit to treatment and counseling, agree to abide by the rules of the program, face frequent and random drug testing, perform community service and must make regular court appearances and any restitution. The offender is forced to deal with addiction or face imprisonment.

Cook County’s drug court started in 1998 and Will County’s a year later (it saw its 300th graduate on March 28). They differ some in their requirements, but their goals are the same — helping participants overcome drug abuse and become productive citizens while also saving money for the court and jail systems.

Drug court is only one tool, and only those who want their lives back will succeed through it. But imprisoned drug abusers normally have a 45 percent recidivism rate, while it’s 5 to 28 percent for those who go through drug court.

Drug courts are also efficient and economical. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that they save $21,000 annually per participant. And prisons are a financial sinkhole that consumes roughly $1.7 billion of Illinois tax money every year, returning almost nothing of value.

Sadly, rehabilitation of drug abusers in Illinois has become less attractive than warehousing them behind bars. Perhaps we cling intuitively to the desire to punish nonviolent drug users more than repair them, but that’s misplaced. More to the point, it wastes not only lives but also large amounts of public money.

See the inherent irony? Government spends billions to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, often leaving them worse off, but stringently doles out far fewer dollars for alternatives that give them hope. There are smarter choices. Drug court is one. We need to use it more.



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