Trump’s Opioid Commission Recommends Drug Courts. How Do They Work?

A defendant goes in front of a drug court in a scene from FRONTLINE's Chasing Heroin.

A defendant goes in front of a drug court in a scene from FRONTLINE's Chasing Heroin.

November 6, 2017

A long-awaited report from President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis was released last week. Among its 56 recommendations was a call to expand drug courts to every federal judicial district.

Drug courts divert low-level drug offenders away from jail and into addiction treatment programs. The report called drug court programs a “proven avenue to treatment for individuals who commit non-violent crimes,” but noted that only 27 of the country’s 93 federal district courts operated as drug courts as of 2015.

The bipartisan commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also recommended improving access to addiction treatment — including medication-assisted treatment, more training for doctors who prescribe opioids and better data collection on overdose deaths.

Drug courts first appeared in the 1980s, and during the Obama administration, they gained endorsements from White House drug czar Michael Botticelli, and former Attorney General Eric Holder, as an alternative to long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

As attorney general, Holder helped steer nearly $100 million a year toward the expansion of drug courts. “I’ve said that in every federal district within the next five years there ought to be a drug court,” he told FRONTLINE in an interview for Chasing Heroin, our 2016 investigation into America’s opioid crisis. “That ought to be a goal that we set for ourselves as a nation.”

Critics say drug courts can be harsh and inflexible — and can violate people’s constitutional rights. For example, a Seattle courthouse featured in Chasing Heroin requires defendants to waive their right to a trial if they want to participate in the program, which requires them to seek treatment.

Success can be mixed. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office examined data from 32 drug court programs and found completion rates ranging from 15 percent to 89 percent. Those who fail may go on to face prosecution, or time in prison if they waived their right to a trial.

“The problem with drug courts is that they continue to think that there’s a moral failing in the individual and that, somehow, waking them up and shocking them with the criminal justice apparatus will create some level of sobriety for that individual,” said Jasmine Tyler, a drug policy analyst formerly with the Open Society Foundations. “It’s just not realistic.”

In Chasing Heroin, FRONTLINE followed two Washington opioid users as they went through drug court and tried to stay out of jail. One, Cari Creasia, a stay-at-home mom who ended up running drugs to support her addiction, was months away from finishing her program. The other, 24-year-old Gailen, was sent to drug court after he was caught selling heroin to an undercover police officer.

Watch the clip below to find out what happened to them:


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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