When I was Curry County deputy district attorney in the early 1970s, I sought long penitentiary sentences for most drug offenders. I believed prison was the ultimate sanction. I was wrong.
Practice has shown that putting people behind bars doesn't affect their drug use. For many offenders jail is a social club where old friends meet. Released addicts simply go back to their other friends, old neighborhoods and addictions.
What works for many offenders is drug court.
Drug court is not an easy out. At the Clackamas County Drug Court, we require offenders to appear on time every week, go into treatment, submit to random drug testing, bring pay stubs to prove they're working, attend at least three 12-step meetings a week, not associate with users and get a GED or high school diploma. Failure to follow any program rule will result in a sanction ranging from writing an essay to going to jail.
One woman in my court had successfully secured a job, regained custody of her kids and had met every other requirement — but she believed she wasn't capable of passing the GED tests. When I told her time was running out, she finally took the tests — and passed. Now, as a confident drug court graduate, she is enrolling in college.
Her story is anecdotal evidence of what the state Department of Human Services, following legislative direction to invest more money in proven practices, has just accepted as research-supported fact: Drug courts are effective in helping many nonviolent offenders quit using drugs, stop committing crimes, get jobs and pay taxes.
Drug courts save money by reducing not only crime, but also the need for social services. The Clackamas County Adult Drug Court has seen six women give birth to drug-free babies, saving taxpayers an estimated $1.5 million.
Sheriff's deputies who provide security in my courtroom initially come with an attitude that drug court is a liberal do-gooder idea. They observe me exchange hugs with successful participants or host an ice cream party if everyone remains clean and sober three weeks in a row. But after witnessing the change in people's lives, these officers change their minds. They see that offenders in drug court may risk more sanctions and spend more time in jail than if they were sentenced or on probation.
The best evidence that drug courts work is in the lives that are changed. One participant with multiple felony convictions, while participating in drug court, was working a fast-food job when her boss handed her the keys one evening and asked her to lock up after closing. "She knew my background," she told me, "and yet she gave me the key and promoted me to manager." This drug court graduate has now started a business, enrolled in college and was recently married.
With adequate treatment capacity and court staff, the Oregon drug courts could accommodate many more offenders and provide even more benefit to society. Drug court is a cost-efficient, crime reducing, life-changing program that works.
The Hon. Robert Selander, a Clackamas County Circuit Court judge, is president of the Oregon Association of Drug Court Professionals.