Jefferson County is part of a growing trend among state court systems that have acknowledged the jailing of nonviolent drug offenders is neither a smart nor effective answer to the problem of drug use. The Denver Post reported last week:
Beginning early next year, some of the people convicted of drug-related felonies in Jefferson County won't be sent to jail. Instead, they will head to drug court, where nonviolent offenders will receive intensive substance-abuse treatment, have their cases managed and be tested for drugs. They'll also face sanctions if they stumble -- including revocation of probation and a trip to jail -- and incentives if they succeed.
The program will be led by Jeffco District Court Judge M.E. Menendez, who says:
"I don't believe they are hopeless. Sometimes they haven't heard that. ... We can't keep putting people in prison."
Judge Menendez is no bleeding heart. Before becoming a judge, she was a federal prosecutor in the drug division and a state prosecutor prior to that. Yet, as she demonstrated in sentencing former MTV star Vince Margera (aka Don Vito) to 10 years probation instead of jail for groping a fan at a public relations event, she understands that jail isn't always the answer. Judge Menendez says the success of the Jefferson County program will be gauged within 18 months by the number of defendants who fail their urine analysis tests or don't appear in court when required. As for whether drug courts work, evidence suggests they do. From the Post:
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals estimates that drug courts reduce recidivism by an average of 8 percent to 26 percent.
Denver has relied on drug courts for years. The website for the Denver District Attorneys' Office describes the program and its benefits:
There are numerous benefits of Drug Court. It frees up jail space, it decreases the number of simple possession cases routed to District Court, and in the majority of cases it allows an offender to overcome a substance abuse problem and become a productive member of the community.
More information on drug courts is available at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.