Judging Addicts
California Lawyer

Judging Addicts

Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System

July 2013

New York University Press, 208 pages, $22, paperback

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Since 1989 when the first drug court opened in Dade County, Florida, they have spread across the country to every state, with 2,459 in operation two decades later. Many states have incorporated drug courts by statute as an integral part of the criminal justice system, and the federal government has spent millions of dollars to create and enhance them. These specialized courts give nonviolent offenders the opportunity to receive drug treatment instead of jail or prison time.

Rebecca Tiger, an assistant sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, spends the majority of Judging Addicts explaining the history of penology and the rise and function of drug courts. With thinly disguised contempt, she describes the "cycle of conscience and convenience" through which reformers since the 1880s have repeatedly sought to change punishment, never achieving the ultimate goal of reducing crime. Rather than a radical and innovative change to the criminal justice system, drug courts are, in her view, just another in the long line of measures that increase government intervention into people's lives. However, she correctly states that drug courts were conceived both in response to overpopulated prisons and jails, and out of frustration by judges who saw themselves as little more than cash register clerks, "dispensing preset sentences" that had little effect on the behavior of addicted defendants.

In her analysis, Tiger points out the many flaws in drug courts, which should be considered carefully by those who practice there. For example, she says some drug court judges consider themselves as actors "putting on a show" in the courtroom. Other judges decline to release participants from a drug court, even though they have completed all requirements, because "the person's attitude hasn't been sufficiently transformed." Some judges override the clinical recommendations of treatment professionals who recognize the disease of addiction, punishing participants for exhibiting its symptoms. As drug courts develop from experiments to formal institutions, Tiger warns of the dangers that they could become punitive bureaucracies.

I have traveled all over the country teaching about drug courts, and I find that some of the practices are horrible, just as Tiger points out. But if drug courts are run correctly, they are much preferable to incarceration.

Presented as a scholarly work, Tiger's research is in fact mostly reported as statements by unnamed drug court "proponents" or "advocates," whom she quotes frequently. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the quotes, but she sprinkles them liberally throughout the book to support her position without any clarifying context.

Although Tiger's history and analysis of drug courts are very interesting, the book can be misleading. For example, the author says participants who plead guilty to a felony must serve a prison sentence if they do not complete the program. However, most people who do not complete drug court will not go to prison. Many drug court participants are charged with misdemeanors, and even felony defendants frequently receive jail (as opposed to prison) sentences.

Tiger also repeatedly states that drug courts seek to "cure" addiction. This conflicts with her acknowledgment that drug courts consider addiction to be a "chronic, relapsing condition" that can never be cured.

It will come as no surprise to some readers that in the last chapter Tiger advocates for legalizing drug use. Unlike the courts, she claims that addiction is a medical fiction invented by those who seek to exert more social control, so she advocates providing more social services to drug users rather than punishing them. Indeed, she says that harm-reduction efforts - such as providing drug-use rooms with clean needles - are more humane than coercing drug users into treatment.

The book will engender thoughts about how drug courts should function and the purpose and effectiveness of our drug laws. It will help anyone interested in the history and purpose of our jails, prisons, and criminal law to better understand how our approaches to criminality have changed over the years. Unfortunately, the author's real target should be the legislatures, which make the law, and not the courts that merely implement it. Even if Tiger's conclusions are correct, she fails to ask the critical question confronting drug court judges: Unless and until the legislature makes a major shift in its approach to criminalized drug use, is sending people to supervised treatment through drug court worse than putting them into a cage and expecting them to improve?

Glade F. Roper, a judge in Tulare County Superior Court for 23 years, coedited Drug Courts: A New Approach to Treatment and Rehabilitation.

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