Drug Court Offers Alternative to Jail for Non-Violent Drug Offenders in WA

The US criminal justice system has provided harsh penalties for drug offenders since the beginning of its so-called “War on Drugs” that began in the early 1970s, though social problems with forms of drug use were evident much earlier than that and have continued to abound despite government efforts to diminish or halt them. Some drug penalties are federal in nature, meaning that investigations are handled at the federal level and penalties are standardized across the board for convictions.

However, not all local criminal justice systems provide the same penalties for possession and distribution of drugs in their jurisdiction, and many are seeking alternative forms of drug penalties that more closely respond to the needs of those with addictive behaviors. Another important factor in the policies of many local governments to review policies for convictions is prison overcrowding, which is a major problem in some districts. Those convicted of non-violent crimes who are less likely to endanger the public are often the target of alternative programs, and many drug offenders fall within this category.

Whatcom County in Washington state has implemented a system they call “drug court” that allows participants to avoid prison time in exchange for group counseling sessions, weekly meetings with a case worker and other group support events. Participants must also submit to regular drug tests during the program.

However, not just anyone can submit for the program: violent offenders are not eligible, for example. The program admittance committee is looking for individuals whose crimes were the result of drug abuse problems, not simply criminals who used drugs. While slight, the distinction is important for the success of the program, according to county officials.

Lawmakers in the state see the program as a win-win situation, since it is more likely to change behavior by providing offenders with help for their personal problems, and is cheaper for the county as well ($4,600 for enrollment in drug court, as compared to around $24,000 for a year in county jail or $31,000 for a year in state prison).

Of course, when it comes to personal behavioral issues, it’s not possible to have a perfect success rate, since the success of such a problem is fully dependent on the personal responsibility taken by its members. According to county statistics, around 29% of participants are charged again with drug crimes in the future. However, this rate is much better than more traditional jail penalties, which show a much higher lapse rate for women (48%) and more than twice as much for men (60%).

Whatcom County isn’t the only county or city in the United States to implement such a program. If you are interested in more information about how your state or local government sets penalties for drug offenders, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area.