Message from NACDL's State Legislative Director

Message from NACDL's State Legislative Director

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

The NACDL Task Force Issues a Report and Calls for Reform

In September, after a two-year study, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Problem-Solving Courts Task Force issued its comprehensive report titled America’s Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform. The report provides a review of problem-solving courts — specifically drug courts — and includes recommendations that would enable these courts to more successfully manage people with substance abuse problems and alleviate the stress on prisons and taxpayers.

Many of these courts force people to enter a guilty plea in order to gain access to court-supervised treatment programs. Even if an addicted individual achieves lasting sobriety, learns to control antisocial behavior, and is unlikely to become a repeat offender, the consequences of a criminal conviction can be lifelong and devastating. As such, the NACDL Task Force’s overarching conclusion is that substance abuse should be treated as a public health concern that is handled outside the criminal justice arena.

The recommendations of the task force include: (1) opening admission criteria to all who need, want, and request treatment; (2) enforcing greater transparency in admission practices and relying on expert assessments, not merely the judgment of prosecutors; (3) prohibiting the requirement of guilty pleas as the price of admission; and (4) considering the ethical obligations of the defense lawyer to the client even if the client chooses court-directed treatment.
Drug courts — first created 20 years ago as an emergency response to an epidemic of drug-related criminal cases that clogged courts and prisons — have in many places become an obstacle to making cost-efficient drug abuse therapy available to addicts and reducing criminal case loads. Many of these courts have encouraged a team approach in dealing with clients: the prosecutor, judge, and defense counsel become part of a team that discusses the case of the individual. This breach of ethics allows the defense attorney little opportunity to zealously advocate on behalf of the client. Moreover, when compared to traditional courts, problem-solving courts often underserve minorities, immigrants, and those with few financial resources.

More than 2,100 problem-solving courts exist today in nearly every state, yet incarceration levels for drug offenders and the costs to taxpayers have skyrocketed. State courts and prisons are still overflowing with people charged with use or street-level sale of drugs. The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2008 ( listed 1.7 million drug arrests. This is 12.2 percent of all reported crimes — 4,658 arrests every day, roughly one arrest every 18 seconds.

There is no single model for drug courts. Some work fairly well; many do not. NACDL offers recommendations in the report for significant structural reform of the existing system. The Association stands committed to ensuring these recommendations become part of informed public policy decisions.

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