In an effort to minimize what are considered excessive prison sentences and help reduce prison overcrowding, federal judges and prosecutors are collaborating on programs that have been adopted at the state level in a growing number of states. The special treatment programs are meant to minimize what had long been considered significant prison times for defendants who are drug addicted, The New York Times explained. In some cases, United States attorneys are able to either reduce or completely avoid prison sentences, bypassing drug laws that have been described as too rigid and highly disciplinary.
The Justice Department is cautiously making the program, possible, following the lead of state level, so-called "drug courts," which report that their programs have lowered costs and are, in fact, more efficacious when dealing with low-level, repeat offender drug addicts and prison sentences, The Times noted. That the model is picking up momentum at the federal level is surprising, especially in an environment long known to reject processes that restrict the way in which they are able to sentence offenders; yet, the programs have been put in place in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington and have involved some 400 defendants nationwide.
In Charleston, West Virginia, legislators there have been talking about proposals to reduce the number of prisoners via a 2003-implemented experiment. The state now runs 20 drug courts in 30 counties for adults and 16 courts in 20 counties for juveniles, The Charleston Daily Mail wrote. That state's Supreme Court compiled data revealing the ways in which the program has proven better than incarceration.
For instance, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees that since the program's inception, more than half—52 percent—of the 420 adults who entered the drug court programs have graduated; the recidivism rate has dropped from the 20 percent seen in traditional incarceration programs to 10 percent in the proposed program. In juvenile drug courts, 62 percent—201 juveniles—who entered the program completed successfully from 2007 to 2012; the juvenile recidivism rate for program graduates is 14 percent, compared to 52 percent for non-program juveniles, noted The Charleston Daily Mail.
In terms of costs, the state is seeing a savings: Per adult, $7,100 annually; $6,400 for juveniles for just a few months, when compared figures to residential treatment facilities. Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers told The Charleston Daily Mail that, "Twenty graduates will not change the world.... But it will change the world for 20 kids and 20 families for generations. I believe what we are really changing is something we could never do in our regular court process," Stowers pointed out. "We are changing families."
Judge John Gleeson, from Brooklyn, New York Federal District Court, issued an opinion in favor of the emerging approach writing, "Presentence programs like ours and those in other districts mean that a growing number of courts are no longer reflexively sentencing federal defendants who do not belong in prison to the costly prison terms recommended by the sentencing guidelines," according to the Times.
"We recognize that imprisonment alone is not a complete strategy for reducing crime," said James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general, in a separate statement. "Drug courts, re-entry courts and other related programs along with enforcement are all part of the solution," Cole added, said the Times, which noted that the program was brought about in part in response to Obama administration-supported legislation that reduced sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine. The Justice Department supported some federal sentencing guideline changes that would enable for drug or mental health treatment programs used in place of prison for some low-level offenders, said the Times. In fact, the Justice Department changed policy to allow expanding the availability of these alternatives.
Decades prior, the United States Sentencing Commission established what are now considered outdated sentencing guidelines meant to unify federal sentences for similar crimes.
The drug court option is not available to defendants facing more serious charges; for instance those accused violent crimes, of being high-level dealers, or of high-level rug trafficking, the Times said.
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