Drug Courts

Dear Politifact: Your Analysis of Obama's Drug War Record Is Factually Wrong

In the spirit of getting things right, I'd like to help the world's best fact checkers get their facts straight.

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Yesterday, Politifact, the Pulitzer-winning fact checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times, declared Romney's claim that Chrysler "is going to build Jeeps in China," its "lie of the year." But it's a PoliticusUSA story about Politifact awarding Obama its coveted "promise kept" label for his 2007 pledge to "send first-time nonviolent drug offenders to rehab if appropriate" that's on the front page of Reddit right now. 

PoliticusUSA's story is wrong, and it's wrong because the writer relied entirely on Politifact's poor assessment of Obama's drug court record. In the spirit of getting things right, I'd like to help the world's best fact checkers get their facts straight. 

The errors begin almost immediately: 

President Barack Obama says he wants to treat the nation's drug problem as a public health issue as well as a law enforcement one. So he has said nonviolent drug offenders should be given a chance at rehabilitation over jail.

Along those lines, the administration has supported drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to have their charges dropped if they successfully complete a court-monitored treatment program.

Here Politifact both mischaracterizes the drug court model and conflates criminal charges with a guilty plea. There are actually several different types of drug courts. Some of them drop the charges if the offender completes rehabilitation. Other models, however, require an offender to plead guilty, and allow for the conviction to be expunged only upon completion. Still others require the offender to plead guilty, but do not expunge the conviction. All three models are funded by the Obama administration, and all three have controversial requirements for participants: Multiple random drug tests every week (which participants have to pay for), compulsory meetings with addiction counselors (even if they aren't addicted), and jail time for failure (sometimes it's just a few days, sometimes it's for the sentence they would have received if they'd been convicted).

But the problems don't end with Politifact's lazy description of the drug court model. The site also gives Obama credit for states diverting drug offenders, despite the fact that Obama has no control over what states do with their drug offenders. If you doubt that, just ask Obama's Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske

Devon Tackels of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy questioned if Kerlikowske had ended the "war on drugs" in name only. Tackels said the U.S. still arrests about 1.5 million people each year because of drugs.

"Most of the law enforcement in the United States on drugs is done on the state and local level, it's clearly not done by the federal level," Kerlikowske said.

So, it's not Obama's fault when states lock up nonviolent drug offenders, but it's his accomplishment when states instead divert them? "Well," you might say, "he has increased federal funding for drug courts!" Yes, and he's also increased incentives for police to conduct violent drug raids by supplying them with battle-tested military surplus. So are violent raids Obama's fault accomplishment as well? 

Politifact is willing to criticize Obama on only one point: 

We rated Obama's promise to enhance drug courts as a Compromise, because while federal funding has increased and the number of drug courts has grown by about 400 during his term to more than 2,700, the system has not expanded into the federal courts system as Obama pledged.

To recap: Obama gets a "promise kept" for something he has no control over, namely what states do with nonviolent drug offenders; yet he gets a "compromise" for refusing to push the drug court model at the federal level, leaving people like Montana medical marijuana provider Chris Williams to face 80 years in federal prison. Confused? Me too. 

Those are the blatant factual errors, and we could leave it there, but we won't. In its assessment of Romney's lie about Jeep production moving to China, Politifact wrote, "Like many political distortions, Romney's claim contained a grain of truth." Likewise, Politifact's review of Obama has some grains of truth that lack much-needed context. Here's one:  

Last fiscal year, the Obama administration spent $10.4 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs compared with $9.2 billion on domestic drug enforcement.

This is absolutely, 100 percent true, but that doesn't mean it's an honest assessment of the state of the drug war. Figure in the money Washington spends fighting the drug war overseas, and we go back to the old lopsided calculus of enforcement getting more money than treatment and prevention.

"Obama's FY2013 strategy includes more than $5.6 billion for interdiction and overseas supply-control efforts," John Walsh, of the Washington Office on Latin America, noted earlier this year. "Even when adjusting for inflation [it is] 6 percent more than Bush's FY2008 spending on interdiction and overseas efforts." If Politifact had done the math for itself, instead of relying on the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it might have noticed, and hopefully noted, this distinction.

But even if we limit the discussion to domestic spending, the extra $1.2 billion doesn't make that big a dent: In some jurisdictions, drug courts receive local and state funding that totals less than $30,000, while their law enforcement agencies and jails have budgets in the millions. Even when you figure in federal funding, the enforcement side of the equation still has a vastly bigger budget. 

Here's another grain of truth that needs context: 

"(The National Association of Drug Court Professionals) estimates that we send roughly 120,000 people into treatment instead of prison each year – and that number will continue to rise as more courts open."

Now, that's a quote from the drug czar's office, but that doesn't mean Politifact couldn't, uh, check it. If they had, they might've stumbled across a 2006 study titled the "The Long-Term Effects of Participation in the Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court," which found that 45 percent of Batlimore drug court participants were booted from the program after 17 months.; or, a 2005 GAO report that found drug court completion rates range from 27 to 66 percent–meaning a good chunk of those 120,000 people who enter treatment every year end up in jail regardless. 

This brings me to my chief beef with Politifact's article: Every single one of its drug court sources either works for the government or is receiving money from the government: A spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a white paper from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a report from the National Institute of Justice, a positive review of Hawaii's drug court program, and an interview with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, an industry group that's spent over half a million dollars lobbying D.C. lawmakers for more drug court funding.

It's almost as if Politifact is unaware that there are non-governmental groups they can talk to for a critical take on drug courts, such as the Justice Policy Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the California Society of Addiction Medicine, and the Drug Policy Alliance (to name a few). 

In the final paragraph of its justification, Politifact writes that "Obama's promise to send low-level drug offenders to rehab instead of jail is a tough one to assess, but we think it's clear the administration has put resources behind its rhetoric and is trying new approaches to breaking the interconnected cycle of drugs and crime. We rate this a Promise Kept."

It's not tough to assess, actually, it just requires more reporting energy than Politifact was willing to expend.