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DRUG COURT CONTROVERSY

As discussed in our previous blog the Greenburgh Drug Court was so out of control that Court officials eventually had to transfer all of the cases out of the Court to protect the rights of those participating in its Drug Court. As it turns out, Drug Courts in general have become controversial and several studies that have been released this year raise several areas of concern for the people convicted of drug offenses who participate in these programs. Many of the concerns raised are related to the issues that derailed the Greenburgh Drug Court.

Generally, Drug Courts are a type of problem solving Court a new breed of specialized Court that attempts to solve a community problem such as drug abuse, domestic violence or guns. In the case of Drug Courts, participants, individuals arrested for drug related or drug motivated, non-violent crimes are asked to plead guilty in return for entering the Drug Court system where a “carrot and stick” approach will be used to get the participant to deal with their addiction. Participants who are successful are rewarded with such things as applause, certificates, praise and ultimately dismissal of their charges. Participants who are not successful are punished by being required to write essays, do community service, attend extra court sessions and in some cases lengthy jail sentences.

In a series of reports issued this year and discussed in a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers magazine article, the efficacy of the drug court model, as well as its expense and denigration of basic constitutional principles are called into question. In the Drug Court model used most often, drug court participants are often forced to plead guilty to crimes more severe than they might without Drug Court in the hopes that they will be able to get the charges dismissed after completing the Drug court program. In this model, as a cost of entering Drug Court, broad waivers are required, contracts and releases are signed and guilty pleas are entered giving the Court the “stick” to punish those who fail.

In the Greenburgh case, by way of example, the Court wanted to sentence the participant to 1 year in jail for a shoplifting case, a sentence so disparate compared to what she would have gotten without Drug Court that it is shocking. One of the criticisms of the Drug Court model is that it leaves many people who accept drug treatment through the Drug Court worse off than if they had simply handled their case through the normal Courts.

In addition, the reports cite violations of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, a right that was also violated in Greenburgh and a concern that the Drug Courts maybe a place to hide cases involving questionable 4th Amendment search and seizure police actions.

In sum, these reports raise legitimate concerns for Court Administrators who are looking to get the most out of dwindling resources. However, they also raise legitimate concerns for anyone accused of a drug related or drug motivated, non-violent crime. The reports concede the numerous people that have been helped by Drug Courts. But anyone considering entering a Drug Court program needs experienced criminal defense counsel who can help them to get to have all of the information and go into the program with their eyes wide open about the expectations of the program and the consequences of failure.