Imagine a program where someone charged with a nonviolent crime received a combination of support from the justice system, social and mental health services, rehabilitation programs, and their communities instead of being sent to prison.

For those who support justice system reform, this approach sounds like a dream. But for some people charged of a crime, this program already exists. Drug courts have sprung up throughout the country to deal with rampant opioid use that traditional punishments just can’t seem to fix. And it’s been widely successful.

In Washington state, participants in drug courts were twice as likely to remain free of arrest in the three years following their participation in the program compared to people who didn’t enter the program, according to a 2013 report from the state Department of Social and Health Services. Taxpayers saved approximately $22,000 for each person diverted from prison due to the program.

So why isn’t this model used for other types of crime?

“Most of the time, we tend to want quick fixes and oversimplistic approaches, even when they repeatedly fail over and over and over,” says Faith Lutze, professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University. “We invest in traditional systems because we tend to view them as if they have always been and always will be.”

Profile of Faith Lutze
Faith Lutze (Courtesy WSU Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology)

Lutze, who has served on criminal justice policy boards at both the federal and state levels and provided expert analysis of drug courts and prison culture over the last few decades, has seen how the preference toward traditional systems can cause setbacks for individuals hoping to turn their lives around.

“We default to a punitive practice even though we have evidence that all these other interventions work better,” Lutze says. “This affects the most vulnerable people, who don’t have the resources to get support outside the justice system.”

Thus, people who would benefit the most from holistic programs and resources, rather than imprisonment, don’t usually get them until they’ve already committed a crime, Lutze says, which contributes to uneven applications of justice based on factors like race, gender, or income status. If we take the findings from drug court proceedings and apply them to the community, then many people wouldn’t have to enter the system at all.

“If drug courts are effective in changing the substance abuse trajectory, why do people have to go through the justice system to get these services?” Lutze says. “We should be doing both. Investing in programs that divert people from the justice system, but also giving them that same ethic of care if they do end up in the system.”

And by addressing factors like education and vocational training, job stability, and affordable housing, society can not only reduce the likelihood that individuals previously convicted of a crime return to prison but also improve the quality of life for at-risk citizens too.

“To just accept things as the way they are upholds a system of oppression and maintains the status quo,” Lutze says. “If we take a holistic approach, we can effect change and achieve the progress we want to see on an individual level as well as at a system level.”


Read more

Opinion: “The Root Cause of Violent Crime Is Not What We Think It Is”  (New York Times)