A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

By Brian Slodysko November 18, 2009

King County Drug Court turned 15 years-old today and Dan Satterberg's office had a large shindig at the courthouse to celebrate what has been one of the nation's more successful efforts to reduce recidivism for drug offenders. In fact, the program has apparently been such a success that the federal government is looking to sink a sizable chunk of cash into similar programs nationwide.

Using a combination of stick/carrot incentives -- addiction treatment or jail time if a participant fails a drug test --  the program has reduced the recidivism rate in drug cases by 8.7 percent, according to the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, drawing local and national attention.

Since 1994, some 1,400 people have had felony drug charges against them dropped upon successful completion of the program.

While drug court is expensive -- about $2 million a year in King County -- it is an upfront cost that proponents say saves money in the long run: Essentially, that you have to spend a little to save a little, though savings do come -- in the form of lowered prison and court costs when individuals  don't re-offend.

It was abundantly clear in the rhetoric of the speakers at today's event -- U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and Federal District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez (who was the drug court's first judge) -- that certain circles in law enforcement are ardently against the "tough on crime" policies of the Reagan era.

During the late '80s the Legislature "had increased sentences. So all of the sudden the sentence for selling five dollars of crack cocaine was a two year prison sentence." Satterburg said.  "We had this idea that maybe we should try something different than trying as many cases as we can. Maybe the people involved are not necessarily criminals -- maybe they're addicts."

When the idea of drug court was first being discussed in the early '90s, many were skeptical. "We had to assure the Legislature that they had the power to cut sentences because they had never done it before. They always raised them, that's what they do," Martinez said, referring to lawmakers who were at first leery of the idea due to the political consequences of looking soft on crime. "They were all very scared of this. The Republicans and the Democrats would look at each other and say 'Well, if I do that are you going to use that against me in the next election?'"

Lawmakers weren't the only who were apprehensive about the program.

"If people would have asked me ten years ago about drug addiction I would have simply said that it was a moral failure and 'why don't you find God, and get a spine and straighten up, etc.,'" said Kerlikowske. "Frankly (the program) breaks the myth that treatment doesn't work ... It makes a lot of sense from a cost/benefit standpoint. Treatment is about one-half the cost of incarceration."

Indeed, even these days loosening up laws like, say, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, makes leaders in Olympia run for political cover (or kill any proposed legislation in the Rules committee, as was done last session).  The prevailing belief (and they could well be right) is that while there appears to be support for such measures in urban areas, in rural areas of the state, those policies don't play well and could cost majority Democrats seats. Politically it still looks better to come out with a simple get tough on crime message, rather than offering to decriminalizing marijuanana or suggesting complex, nuanced (and liberal!) solutions to problems, which doesn't always go over well with voters.

However, now that drug court has been around and proven to be a success,  lawmakers don't have a problem with it -- the political risk no longer exists. Last session the legislature actually extended a special revenue stream to keep the program alive in an era otherwise known for eviscerated funding for social programs and  busted budgets.

And Kerlikowske says more help is coming from the Feds for similar programs across the country to the tune of $29 million. But whether or not this is going to mark a shift in the way the country looks at crime is anybody's guess.

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