Another Losing War – How Drug Courts Are Attempting To Address the War on Drugs’ Failures


 The “War on Drugs” has been an abject failure in every way that can be analyzed by data and statistics. Over the last thirty years, the number of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses at the local, state, and federal levels has increased by roughly one thousand percent. In Pennsylvania, the incarceration rate has grown by 280% since 1982, far outpacing the commonwealth’s population growth over the same period. Most of the imprisonment growth can be attributed to low-level drug offenses such as individual drug use and possession while having little to no impact on high-level activities such as manufacturing, distribution, money-laundering, and violence. In essence, we are trying to incarcerate our way out of a problem that would be better addressed through treatment and prevention programs. These programs, including specialized drug courts, prove to be more cost-effective, less disrupting to families/communities, and produce more enduring results.


Powerful and Unfortunate Facts


  • The United States has spent over $1 Trillion on the War on Drugs
  • The War on Drugs has continued through 8 presidencies – Nixon thru Obama
  • $52 Billion on average spent annually
  • $20 Billion spent in 2015 thru June 22, 2015
  • The United States houses 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners
  • 58% of drug violation prisoners have no history of violent crime
  • 70% of state drug prisoners were never involved with high level drug activity


If these facts were accompanied by positive, verifiable, and repeatable outcomes, then there would be no real debate on how to proceed. However, not only has drug availability and use not been adversely impacted, but we are depleting government resources, maintaining an over-bloated prison system, destroying families and communities, and contributing to an overly-violent drug culture.


By maximizing the enforcement/corrections approach while minimizing the prevention/treatment approach, we are actually perpetuating the problems that lead to drug use and abuse. For example, 1 out of every 100 children in the United States has a parent in prison; many of these parents are minorities, women, and come from economically-challenged communities. Many were convicted of low level drug violations. Statistically, the children of these prisoners are far more likely to, themselves, become involved with drug activity, leading to arrests, convictions, and incarceration – thus perpetuating a social and economic death spiral.


There is an alternative and better approach to be pursued. Depending upon what resource you use, there between 2000 and 2800 “drug courts” in the United States. Drug courts provide an innovative approach to disposing of drug fueled violations in a way that offers participants intensive rehabilitation for addictions and opportunities to change their lifestyles and build a new life, free from a criminal record. Importantly, families and communities are not torn apart due to an individual’s problem with low level drug violations.


Ask yourself some questions:


  • When someone is released from prison after being convicted of low level drug activity, how do they re-enter the workforce?
  • If an ex-prisoner cannot gain employment, how do they provide for themselves and their families? How do they contribute to their communities?
  • If the underlying addiction has not been addressed, what is the likelihood that it cured itself?
  • Put it all together – criminal record, no employment opportunities, addiction remains un-addressed, return to a distressed family/community/lifestyle – what are the chances of building a new life


The drug court system was designed to address these issues and stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the “War on Drugs”. Judge Steven O’Neill of the Montgomery County Court System will be speaking at The New Leaf Club on Monday, July 13th at 7PM. He has been quoted as follows: “I like to describe drug court as a place where, instead of prison, addicts receive the right mix of treatment and accountability needed to change their lives; and instead of hopelessness, they receive a solution.”


If you or anyone close to you has personal experience with this concept, this is a “must see” event. The New Leaf Club looks forward to your visit.

Resources used for this article:

  • FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums – advocacy group
  • ICPS – International Center for Prison Studies
  • The Sentencing Project – advocacy group
  • Right on Crime – advocacy group
  • C-SPAN
  • S. News & World Report
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Montgomery County Overdose Task Force