Justice News

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Delivers Remarks at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Conference
United States
Monday, July 15, 2013

Thank you, Denise [Bureau of Justice Assistance Director, Denise E. O’Donnell], for that introduction.  And thank you West [NADCP’s CEO West Huddleston] and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals for having me here.

It is an honor to be among this dedicated and diverse group of professionals, policymakers, community leaders, and concerned citizens.  Thank you for the important work you do every day to promote safety for the public, as well as stability, accountability, and recovery for drug-involved offenders. 

What you do is inspiring, but it is not easy.  It’s complicated and I know that sometimes it can feel like a thankless job. 

But the Department of Justice has witnessed your impressive results first-hand, and is proud to be your partner and to support so many drug court programs across America.  We recognize that our partnership together is integral to the Department’s efforts to enhance public safety, but by improving outcomes for offenders, we make that enhancement of public safety lasting.  And drug courts, as well as mental health courts, DUI/DWI courts, reentry courts, Veterans courts, and tribal health to wellness courts all play a vital role in this process. 

Let’s talk about why your work matters so much.  Some 2.2 million inmates are being held in our nation’s prisons and jails.  The federal prison population totals nearly 219,000 – nearly doubling since 1997.  Almost half of all federal inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes.  About 17 percent of the 1.4 million inmates in state prisons are incarcerated for drug crimes.  

But the incarceration numbers don’t even tell the full story.  After prison, we see that recidivism rates remain high.  Re-arrest rates after three years are about 67 percent for state prisoners and 40 percent for federal offenders. 

Make no mistake -- these numbers are not just meaningless data points.  First of all let’s not forget that these numbers relate to actual individual people and beyond that they translate into real budgetary costs.  We estimate that federal, state, and local governments now spend nearly $83 billion each year on corrections.   

While incarceration is a necessary part of the strategy for ensuring public safety, we know it is not the only answer in every case -- especially for the low-level drug offender.  If any of us hope to change the behavior of our criminal population – and make our communities safer – we must make the investment to treat individuals with substance use disorders and others in need of help as a part of the criminal justice system.  And I call it an investment for a reason.  We must recognize substance use disorders as a disease, and that a holistic solution provides a better outcome overall for the defendant, the criminal justice system, and society.  If the treatment is done right, it can return both economic and societal benefits well beyond the actual cost of providing it.

The truth is that drug courts may not be suitable for everyone who has committed a drug crime.  But for those cases where it is a good fit, they can make the difference between a continuing cycle of crime and a changed, drug-free life.   Research funded by our National Institute of Justice shows that local drug courts do reduce drug use and criminal offending.  In particular, programs that target individuals who are drug-dependent and at high risk for recidivism have been proven to be especially effective and yield the greatest return on investment.

The challenge, of course, is making the most of these successful models by grounding them in the evidence and understanding that drug courts work best if they follow research-based principles. 

A drug court is most effective when it has a clear and focused screening process and relies on a validated risk assessment instrument.  A drug court has better chances for success when it uses a system of graduated and immediate sanctions and incentives, when the process is understandable and meaningful to participants, and when the process is delivered in a way that can be perceived as fair and equitable.  And it works best when those running the program establish a continuum of care that supports relapse prevention, community integration, and aftercare services.  These are critical strategies, founded on science, that can help maximize the drug court approach, and need to be built into our programs. 

Our ongoing challenge at the Department of Justice is to expand these programs on a larger scale while maintaining the evidence basis of their usefulness and success.  Last year, our Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded 60 adult drug court grants totaling $18 million, and we recently awarded funding to support 10 new mentor adult court programs.  We have an additional $41 million available for adult drug court programs this year.

Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is supporting juvenile and family drug courts.  Under the Adult Drug Court Research to Practice, or R2P, Initiative, we’re helping to make sure the latest information about addiction science and treatment gets out to practitioners and policymakers. 

Based on the successes at the state and local levels, we have taken steps to institute drug courts at the federal level.  To be clear, the federal criminal justice docket differs from state dockets in that proportionately fewer federal defendants are eligible for diversion from prosecution.  We have seen that most federal drug offenders have been involved in serious trafficking crimes.  But for the individuals in the federal system for whom alternative sanctions may be appropriate, we looked to your experiences and success stories for ideas on how to achieve more meaningful results for individual defendants and society.

Following your lead, we recognized the value in making alternatives to federal prosecution through pre-trial diversion programs more available.  So we changed our own policies – codified in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual – to do just that.  In 2011, we removed an outdated policy provision that precluded drug addicted individuals from entering pre-trial diversion programs.  The change was clearly necessary, since drug addicted individuals are among those who most need diversion.  

To better understand and evaluate alternative sanctions to drug crimes, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices participate in various programs with judges, probation agencies, and defenders’ offices.  As but one example, in the Central District of Illinois, the U.S. Attorney’s office is active in the Pretrial Alternatives to Detention Initiative.  Under this program, defendants with substance use disorders who are charged with felony drug offenses but are deemed minimally culpable may be offered diversion, have their charges reduced or dismissed, or receive a sentence that does not involve incarceration once they complete the program.  Ninety percent of participants have completed the program, and over $4.7 million in imprisonment expenditures have been avoided.

Our U.S. Attorneys also work hand-in-hand with local authorities and community and faith-based groups to close down open-air drug markets.  Our Bureau of Prisons runs Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Programs that provide cognitive behavioral treatment to federal inmates with a diagnosis of substance abuse or dependence.  And our Office of Justice Programs supports treatment services at the pre- and post-release stages through its Second Chance Act programs and the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program.   

I am proud of the progress we are making.  But I know we cannot be content.  Drug courts hold a key to a smarter criminal justice system, one that can be an agent of positive individual and societal change. 

Our collective answer – at the state and federal levels -- must involve effective prevention, rehabilitation and reentry efforts.  It is in our mutual interest to give these individuals tools to overcome addiction and become productive, law-abiding citizens.  As the Attorney General remarked earlier this year, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason. . . .   We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter – and not simply to warehouse and forget.”

Today, I challenge you to take the time to think bigger, think broader, think about how you can help us at the federal level apply your successful principles and best practices to change the lives of drug-involved offenders and improve the criminal justice system further.  You, better than anyone else, understand that potential.  You are leaders in creating safer communities, and I look forward to building on our partnership. 

Thank you for your outstanding service.

Updated September 17, 2014