Civil Liberties

The Drug Court Paradox: If You Comply, You're Sick; If You Relapse, You're a Crook


The biggest problem with drug courts is that they claim to be an alternative to imprisonment, but aren't really. Here's an illustrative and depressing example: Last week a 46-year-old Illinois drug court graduate who'd been caught relapsing was sentenced to six years in prison.

After pleading guilty to a meth possession charge in 2006, the Quincy Herald-Whig reports that Rodney Ward spent 30 months under the supervision of the Adams County Drug Court. He graduated in 2008. At some point after that he got back into meth, buying pseudoephedrine, making, selling, and using the stuff. Here's what happened after he was charged:

[Adams County First Assistant State's Attorney Gary Farha] asked [Drug Court Judge William Mays] to levy the stiffest possible penalty against Ward.

"To get this great opportunity (of Drug Court) and then blowing it like Mr. Ward has done, there needs to be significant penalties," Farha said.

"You did well in Drug Court," Mays told Ward. "But the fact that you went back to using meth just points out the strength of the addiction."

Then Mays slapped Ward with a six-year sentence, when he could've offered him four years (but apparently not probation). This is wrong. 

Drug court proponents argue that drug addiction is a physical disease, that it is unjust and ineffective to jail nonviolent addicts, and that they should instead be offered a strictly regimented recovery program. To the average person (say, someone who doesn't oppose the drug war) it sounds like drug courts are doing the Lord's work, that is until you consider that in most drug courts (and among most drug court proponents), offenders don't get any points for reducing their consumption or getting their life back on track while continuing to use. Ask why that is, and a lot of drug court proponents will suddenly change their rhetoric and their tone: It's against the law. People have to be held accountable. Even the "softer" drug courts feel the need to punish people who relapse, either with a brief stint in jail, or with community service. It's kinder, gentler prohibition

Back to Ward: He's 46. If he does a full six years behind bars, he'll be 52 when he gets out. Hardened, probably. Less skilled than when he went in. Would you hire him? Could you blame him if he got back into meth?