The Court System: Time for Change?

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The holiday season is upon us, a time for being with family and friends and looking forward to new challenges in the upcoming year. It is also a time when we make resolutions to improve our lives. New Year’s Resolutions have become a staple activity. We look at ways to improve our health, our relationships and ultimately our lives. In that vein, this time of the year is also a perfect time to look at how the Criminal Justice System works and find ways to improve its impact and ability to change those offenders who come through the system.

In 2008, the Pew Center on the States reported that an astounding one in every 100 adults in the U.S. was behind bars. While drunk driving gets the most attention, the incidence of other alcohol-involved crimes including domestic violence, underage drinking, and assault reached staggering proportions. Research surveys found that:

  • 5.3 million adults − 36% of those under correctional supervision at the time − were drinking at the time of their conviction offense.
  • 40% of state prisoners convicted of violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their offense − the more violent the crime, the greater the likelihood that alcohol was involved.
  • 25% of state prisoners given a standard questionnaire to screen for alcoholism tested positive.

Alcohol- and drug-involved offenders are overwhelming the criminal justice system, creating unwieldy court dockets, burdensome caseloads, and overcrowded jails and prisons. Yet, programs and sanctions had little impact on the rate of alcohol-involved crime. Incarceration, the traditional justice solution, is inordinately expensive and minimally effective at best. Virtually everyone involved in this issue agreed: We cannot afford to incarcerate our way out of the problem.

For the past several years, NPAMC has been promoting change, looking to actions and established programs that research demonstrates work. Implementing a DWI Court, starting a HOPE program, or using a 24/7 testing are ways to take a strong step forward. But more must be done.

In one of NPAMC’s consensus statements it was noted that:

It is important for justice officials to identify offenders with alcohol, drug and/or mental health issues.

Where feasible, the following defendants should be screened for alcohol, drug and mental health issues prior to arraignment using generally accepted tools:

  • Defendants with past histories of alcohol, drug or mental health issues
  • Defendants arrested for felonies or violent misdemeanors
  • Defendants under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs at the time of the alleged offense

Offenders who screen positive for alcohol, drug or mental health issues should be formally assessed for both clinical needs and criminogenic risk factors prior to sentencing.

  • Clinical needs include alcohol and other drug use, abuse and dependence, mental health problems, and functional impairments (like inability to maintain employment or relationships).
  • Criminogenic risk factors include risk of dangerousness, risk of re-offending, risk of violating conditions of supervision, and risk for failure in standard treatment interventions…

Recommendations based on risk and clinical needs assessments should be communicated to the sentencing judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, defendant, probation officer and prior to sentencing.

Since that statement was created, great steps forward have been taken. Courts are recognizing the importance of using evidence-based practices, and addressing the root cause for a person who drinks too much and then commits a crime. Courts are still holding individuals accountable, but they are also creating real change. But just like there is always room for improvement for ourselves, there is still more to do within the criminal justice system.

During this time of reflection, consider where you are at and what you are doing within the Criminal Justice System. Examine what you can do to bring about real change within the system. Then it is time to speak up and promote that change; to make a resolution to improve the system. With each one of us moving forward, real change is possible and that benefits everyone.

1 NPAMC seeks to identify areas of agreement among the majority of stakeholders and build consensus to foster real change. By focusing on areas of consensus, we can implement real solutions in a timely and effective manner. NPAMC builds consensus by hosting regular meetings and developing statements reflecting the sense of the group.