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Creating Institutional Change in the Criminal Justice System

William F. Dressel, President of the National Judicial College, discusses the need for reform in the criminal justice system and alternatives to incarceration that are, not only less expensive, but also effective.

Law enforcement, jail personnel, pretrial services, probation,prosecutors and other justice system decision makers every day encounter individuals facing charges relating to substance abuse. Whether the alleged offense is a drug charge, a probation violation due to a positive drug test, or an offense committed to get money for drugs, a significant percentage of criminal charges in every court are related to or determined to be due to a substance abuse disorder.

All of us have witnessed this cycle of substance use, crime and arrest playing out again and again. More and more judges and others in the justice system seek solutions that would stop the cycle. Understanding the neuroscience of addiction is critical to facilitating imposition of court sanctions in concert with clinical interventions and other responses leading to recovery. Evidence-based solutions are the key to helping these individual offenders not repeat their patterns of crime and substance abuse. A justice system response which includes screening, assessment, treatment, monitoring, supervision, or involvement in programs addressing criminogenic behavior is the answer.

Drug courts, Veterans courts, DWI courts, and other problem-solving initiatives work. However, given the overwhelming number of substance-involved offenders recycling through the system, more needs to done. As a matter of effective and efficient policy, decision makers need to look at the entire criminal justice system from point of first contact through supervision after sentencing for alternatives that are effective and just not less expensive.

In an attempt to facilitate a discussion leading to creation of evidence-based responses, several Federal partners, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (SAMHSA/CSAT), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Judicial College (NJC) and the Center for Health and Justice at Treatment Alternatives for Safe Community (TASC), developed the National Judicial Leadership Systems Change Initiative (NJLSCI). This initiative was offered to: 

  • presiding judges in September 2011;
  • judicial district teams in the State of Texas; and
  • local court and state policymakers teams in the State of Georgia in October 2011.

The participants acknowledged the need for institutional change in the criminal justice system, a principle highlighted in the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy. The following are some of the proposals drafted by teams/judges: 

  • Determine what information prosecutors or judges need to exercise discretion in ordering offenders into treatment, diversion or alternative programs;
  • Convene local criminal justice collaboratives to determine which offenders should be addressed for their substance use and which prosecuted through the regular criminal justice system;
  • Examine the points of contact that offenders have with the judicial system and determine what information is available or should be made available in determining how to address the substance abuse of the offender;
  • Determine how a court or judicial circuit could conduct screening of persons arrested or contacted by law enforcement officers at the earliest time possible; and
  • Identify which offenders need to be brought into the system and those that can be addressed through alternative programs.

From a judge’s perspective, the NJLSCI,  by working with and supporting the efforts of criminal justice systems through presiding judges andlocal, circuit or statewide teams to plan and implement systemic interventions for offenders with substance use disorders, is effective.   Innovative leaders must collaborate and determine how their local justice system can best address substance abusing offenders beginning with the point of first contact utilizing evidence-based interventions at each opportunity.

William F. Dressel is President of the National Judicial College