Drug courts can help reduce recidivism

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If we don’t find a better way of dealing with non-violent drug offenders, we may find ourselves building more prisons. That’s the concern of Gary C. Mohr, Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.  We’re good at putting drug offenders in jail, but we’re not doing so well helping them with their addictions, which means they’re likely to be repeat visitors at state prisons. That means more expense for the state and a loss of productivity in the economy.

This is a big problem that is growing. Mohr has seen Ohio’s prison population skyrocket during his 40 year career. In 1974, Ohio housed 8500 inmates in state facilities. That number has grown to 50,500, nearly a six fold increase, while Ohio’s population has grown by only eight percent to 11.5 million.  Drug-related offenses are driving the increase

Ohio sent 20,120 individuals to state prisons in fiscal year 2014. For prison commitments in Ohio’s six most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, Montgomery, and Summit), 21.5 percent were for drug offenses, but the number was 30 percent for the other 82 counties. Of those offenders classified as truly non-violent—no prior arrests, indictments, or convictions for a violent offense—51 percent were incarcerated for drug offenses and are serving sentences of less than a year.

What to do?  For starters, Mohr wants to change the way we deal with non-violent drug offenders.  “Conviction does not end addiction,” he says. “Prison has become the default sanction for drug offenses, and prison programs are not as effective in addressing addiction as are community programs.”

Mohr would like to see more “drug courts,” where judges have more options in sentencing, and serious attention is given to rehabilitation.  The process usually begins after sentencing. If deemed to be an eligible candidate for drug court—dealers and repeat offenders do not qualify—the offender is given the option of participating in a rehabilitation program in lieu of jail time.

Drug court participants are placed on probation while undergoing rehab and are regularly monitored. If they deviate from the program, they are held accountable and returned to the court. A drug court judge has tools at his disposal to get an offender back on track, such as ordering a few days in jail. Those who remain noncompliant lose their probation status and serve their sentences. If an offender successfully completes the program, the charges brought against him are reduced or dismissed.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice indicates that drug courts are effective. The average recidivism rate nationwide for non-drug court offenders is 50 percent, but the drug courts that were studied had a recidivism rate of 37 percent. Similar specialty courts for drunk drivers had recidivism rates of 38 percent. Nationwide, the “graduation rate” for drug courts is just under 50 percent.

An evaluation completed in 2011 by the National Institute of Justice and other research groups concluded that drug court participants with violence histories had success rates comparable to those without violence histories. Drug court participants also reported less family conflict and were more likely than non-drug court contemporaries to be enrolled in school. They were also, on the whole, more self-reliant six months after completing their programs.

What makes drug courts successful? It’s simple. They have leverage. The participants know exactly what they stand to lose if they break the rules. Participants are monitored and routinely appear before the same judge. While there is a written schedule of sanctions for violations, drug court judges have discretion in meting out sanctions and deftly employ both carrot and stick.

Ohio has 96 drug courts, the first one created in 1995, and eight specialty courts for drunk drivers. To put these numbers in perspective, Franklin County’s municipal and common pleas court systems have 32 courts and two specialty courts for drugs.

To promote the idea that Ohio should be investing in people instead of prisons, Mohr convened a “best practices” round table in June, likely the first event of its kind for Ohio. Officials from nearly every county in Ohio attended. Four of the speakers were judges who preside over courts for drunk drivers and drug offenders in Clermont, Hamilton, Hardin and Cuyahoga County.

Mohr believes that drug courts and community rehab programs have twice the success rate of jail programs. “The prison system isn’t designed to be responsive to non-violent drug offenders. We have to always look for better solutions, and drug courts are a step in the right direction.”  There’s the savings too. The NIJ reports that the reduction in recidivism rates and other long term costs result in savings of $6744 per participant.

Putting drug offenders in jail is easy.  Doing what it takes to keep them from returning is the challenge.


Jack D’Aurora writes for


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