Sept. 30, 2014
I spent the summer describing alternative justice systems that exist around the world and how they often are community based ( described as “Restorative Justice” in the U.S). I’ve begun a new series on “Alternative Visions of Western Criminal Justice Systems” that seeks to show how traditional community-based systems can exist alongside current Western systems of criminal justice and improve our current systems by doing so.
IT was May of 1996, and NADCP was having its first annual Conference in Washington D.C. As NADCP’s founding President, it was a very big deal, and we had some of the top politicians in D.C. attending. Among them was Senator Joe Biden, now Vice President (then former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee). I remember talking to him about the federal legislation recently passed by the Congress while he was Judiciary Committee Chair (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act), that limited Drug Court funding to nonviolent offenders.
I tried again (this had been a running dialogue with the Committee) to convince Senator Biden that restricting drug court participants to non-violent drug offenders would unnecessarily exclude those who need intensive supervision and treatment the most, who otherwise were on their way to prison or a long jail sentences. His response was that I was pushing too hard, that we would get there eventually, but that we should be content with getting help for those whose “rehabilitation the public will support”.
The need to go slow, and avoid violent offenders remains a serious weakness in many Community-Based Courts across the nation. It can be upsetting to visit or sit in as a visiting judge in a Problem-Solving Court made up substantially of middle class, educated, mostly white offenders, when others who are high risk/high need are passed over because of a prior conviction for a violent offense. What’s worse is that while many in a drug court program are drug involved, the scientific research suggests that a majority would not be assessed as drug dependent (or addicted).
It’s hard to accept the notion that serious drug-dependent offenders are denied access to the highly structured and monitored Community-Based Courts because they have some history of violence . They are exactly the demographic that would gain the most from intensive alternatives to prison. The scientific research (particular, out of the University of Cincinatti) all point to a slight increase in criminality for low risk offenders, while high risk offenders reduce their recidivism substantially, when provided with intense supervision and rehabilitative services. We need to take the next step and accept the challenge of making high risk/high need offenders primary participants in our community-based court programs, without regard to their history of violence. As then Senator Biden suggested, we need to make the serious drug dependent offender a new population whose “rehabilitation the public will support”.