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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals 16th Annual Conference


Boston, MA
United States

Thank you, Laurie [Robinson], for your kind words and, more importantly, for your commitment and contributions to the success of our nation’s Drug Courts. You were instrumental in establishing the Justice Department’s federal drug court office in the 1990’s, and we are all fortunate to have you back at the helm of the Office of Justice Programs, building on this work.

Today, I’m honored to join with you and with Chief Justice Price in opening the NADCP’s 16th Annual Conference – now the world’s largest conference on drugs and crime. With us today are judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation and law enforcement officers, policymakers, program administrators, counselors, and Drug Court graduates.

Many of you have traveled from across the country – and far beyond – to be here. And I am grateful for your engagement and your outstanding service. The contributions that you make every day, often in the face of great challenges, help to improve public safety and public health, to protect and leverage taxpayers dollars, to safeguard communities in need, and to assist individuals and families in crisis.

The size of this gathering, the enthusiasm and diversity of the attendees, and the quality of the sessions that have been planned for the next few days are a testament to the leadership and hard work of the NADCP team and, of course, its CEO, West Huddleston. West, thank you for inviting me to join you all today.

For nearly two decades, NADCP’s leadership and membership have served as extraordinary partners to government in the administration of justice. You have proven that redemption and rehabilitation are possible. And you’ve shown that our network of Drug Courts has the power to strengthen, not only families and communities, but our entire justice system.

Together, the people in this room have launched, led and sustained a national – and now international – movement. It’s been just 21 years since the first Drug Court was launched in Miami. Today, there are more that 2,400 Drug Courts, operating in every U.S. state and in 15 countries. Drug Courts now serve more than 120,000 people a year. And, to date, over 1 million people have graduated from America’s Drug Courts. 

This conference provides an important opportunity to build on the extraordinary progress we’ve seen over the last two decades. I want you all to know that, at the Department of Justice, this is a top priority. And, for me, it is a personal calling.

During a career spent as a prosecutor, judge, U.S. Attorney, Deputy Attorney General and, now, as Attorney General, I have seen firsthand how drug addiction can destroy families, lives and communities. I’ve also seen the difference that Drug Courts can make in helping people recovering from addiction reclaim and improve their lives. Today, more than 60 percent of people arrested in this country are regular drug users. About half of those incarcerated are drug dependent. Yet less than 10 percent of those in need of treatment while incarcerated actually receive it. This must change.

Now, few would dispute that public safety requires incarceration, and that imprisonment is, at least partially, responsible for the dramatic drop in crime rates nationwide in recent decades. But, as you all know, incarceration is only part of the answer. It is not the whole answer. Imprisonment, with its high economic and social costs, is not a complete strategy for criminal law enforcement, especially when you consider the fact that, currently, one out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated.

We must focus not only on getting people who commit crimes into prison but also consider what happens to people after they leave prison and reenter society. And we must recognize that every person with a drug dependency who leaves incarceration without treatment represents an opportunity lost, as well as a continued risk to society.

Since 1994, when leaders from our nation’s first 12 Drug Courts formed this organization, NADCP’s leadership and membership has been leading the way forward. Your founders believed that, through judicial monitoring and effective treatment, drug-users could change and improve their lives and our justice system could become stronger. They were right. And the success they helped to foster through our Drug Courts has inspired a critical network of “problem-solving” courts, including mental health courts, community courts, reentry courts and DWI courts.

These courts have measurably – and in many cases, dramatically – helped to improve, and likely save, lives. And we have seen that Drug Courts, specifically, reduce crime more than any other sentencing option. The most rigorous and conservative scientific “meta-analyses” have all concluded that drug courts significantly reduce crime as much as 35 percent more than other sentencing options.  And, nationwide, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free two years after leaving the program.

The long-term effects are just as promising. After the National Institute of Justice completed an evaluation of 6,500 Drug Court participants in Multnomah County, Oregon, over the course of 10 years, we found lower re-arrest rates and reductions in recidivism ranging from 17 to 26 percent. We also found public savings of almost $1,400 per participant when compared to traditional case processing. When costs associated with reduced recidivism and other long-term outcomes were factored in, those savings rose to almost $7,000 per participant.

Recently, NIJ completed a five-year evaluation of 23 drug court sites that measured Drug Court practices and their influence on relapse and recidivism. We’re still consolidating the findings, but preliminary results show that participants reported less drug-related and criminal activity both 6 and 18 months after their admission, and they spent fewer days behind bars as a result. Interestingly, Drug Courts were particularly effective in preventing relapses among those who had long histories of drug use. And one other finding I’d like to emphasize – and one that I can appreciate as a former judge – is that outcomes were better for participants who perceived the judge and the program as fair and impartial and the judge as willing to impose serious consequences on those who dropped out.

By promoting sobriety, recovery, and personal accountability, Drug Courts help to break the cycle of drug use, crime, imprisonment, and release without rehabilitation. Of course, these programs give no one a free pass. They are strict and can be extraordinarily difficult to get through. But for those who succeed, as the Drug Courts graduates who are with us today prove, there is the real prospect of a productive future.

Yet, despite clear economic incentives and high levels of growth and success, today, Drug Courts only serve about one half of non-violent, drug-addicted arrestees who are already eligible for these programs. If Drug Courts were expanded so that they could treat all currently eligible individuals, this result would be more than $2 dollars in savings for every $1 dollar invested – a total of more than $1 billion dollars a year. And if Drug Courts were expanded so they could treat all arrestees who are at-risk for drug or alcohol abuse or dependence, it is estimated that we would save more than $30 billion a year, and avert millions of crimes.

It is time to consider what we can, and must, accomplish. It is time to look toward the future. And it is time to determine how we will put Drug Courts in reach of every individual who needs and would benefit from these programs.

President Obama has signaled his commitment to this work. And we can all be encouraged that the President’s FY 2011 budget request includes close to $60 million for Drug, Mental Health, and Problem Solving Courts programs. The Administration’s commitment to strengthening Drug Courts is also evident in its 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, which the Office of National Drug Control Policy announced in March.

In his opening to the Strategy, the President calls for “a balanced approach of prevention, treatment and law enforcement” in addressing the drug problem. Our current fight against the threats posed by drug use and trafficking has many areas of focus – international and domestic; sources of supply and centers of demand; and law enforcement, prevention, and treatment efforts. The Justice Department is committed to the implementation of every part of the Strategy. Let me assure you all that, while we will continue to enforce our drug laws to their fullest extent, and continue to attack with all of our resources drug producers, distributors, and traffickers, we will also continue our support for innovative prevention and treatment programs.

As part of this effort, we are taking a close look at adolescent recovery. And we are working to improve the implementation of juvenile drug courts by integrating juvenile drug court principles with the Reclaiming Futures model and ensuring appropriate adolescent treatment. Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has been participating in a working group with the Department of Education, ONDCP, SAMHSA, and other agencies focusing on adolescent recovery.  And a summit on this topic is being planned for early fall.

As some of you know, since 2007, the Department has been part of an interagency, public/private partnership with the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  And we will soon be making three new joint awards to support juvenile drug courts as they work to break the cycle of drugs and crime among our young people. The history of our Drug Courts movement has proven the effectiveness of public/private partnerships. And we will continue to establish and leverage such collaborative efforts to support and enhance your work.

Together, I know that we can build on the progress that has been made over the last 21 years. I believe that we can put Drug Courts within reach of those who need them. And I am confident that we can arrive at a place, in this nation and beyond, where all can, indeed, rise.

Thank you all for your commitment to this goal and for your service to those in need and in crisis. It has been a pleasure to join you and a privilege to salute your efforts. I look forward to working with you all to make even greater progress in strengthening our Drug Courts, our entire justice system, our communities and our great nation.

Thank you.

Updated March 14, 2016