ICYMI: The Case for Re-Incentivizing Drug Court Participation in California


From Capitol Weekly:
By: Chief Kelly Vernon

OPINION – As a person with extensive experience working within the criminal justice system, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of collaborative courts in California. This is especially true for drug courts which are aimed at addressing a person’s underlying addiction issues which often leads to criminal activity. Sadly, I have also witnessed policy changes that have unintentionally shifted us away from incentivizing people to participate in drug courts. This shift has contributed to crime in our communities and has had a devastating impact on individuals in need of substance abuse treatment.

Addressing the theft crisis and the fentanyl epidemic is a complicated problem and requires comprehensive solutions. However, there are actions California can take immediately to help stem the tide of theft, drug use, and the pain addicts experience.

One of those is to change policy to incentivize offenders with addiction issues to participate in transformative rehabilitation through drug courts.

Drug courts, by design, provide a crucial intersection of accountability and treatment, offering individuals caught in the cycle of substance abuse and crime a chance to rehabilitate, but current state laws have significantly undermined the efficacy of these courts by removing the incentive to help deeply entrenched substance users to agree to participate in these proven treatment programs. During these tough budget times, the question we must ask ourselves is: How can we put forth responsible solutions that will motivate people to engage in drug treatment programs without overly relying on costly incarceration?

Data and observations from the front lines reveal a troubling trend: Participation in mandated drug treatment has dramatically decreased across California, with the majority of these collaborative courts reporting substantial reductions, 51-39% on average. Specifically, courts handling misdemeanor drug offenses report more refusals to participate compared to those dealing with felony drug defendants, a phenomenon directly tied to law changes.

Current laws have also further exacerbated the issue by reducing misdemeanor probation to one year and felony probation to two years without incorporating any accountability measures or comprehensive support services. This move has set a concerning precedent, imposing arbitrary and sometimes insufficient time to address the nuanced needs of individuals in treatment. This often hampers rehabilitation and success for those in the justice system.

It is well-established that drug rehabilitation programs often require longer engagement to yield successful outcomes, and evidence shows that engaging individuals with supervision, services, and support within the first two years of probation is crucial to changing behavior and reducing recidivism. Drug courts not only facilitate this engagement but have also been proven to be cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, offering significant savings per participant and reducing felony re-arrest rates dramatically upon successful program completion.

The legislature can act now to help more people participate in drug courts and reach those in need of treatment – which will in turn keep our communities safer and lower crime rates, especially those driven by addiction. As one part of what should be a comprehensive plan to address the severe issues facing our communities, California can restore accountability now without going back to an overreliance on incarceration by restoring incentives for participation in drug courts while maintaining equally effective disincentives for recidivating. This can include revisiting current probation term structures to allow for more individualized approaches that focus on treatment progress and ensure time on probation is sufficient to enable completion of court-ordered treatment programs.

Recent data from a 2024 statewide survey of California voters reveals there is strong support for this path, with 84% of voters agreeing that drug treatment should be mandatory for those who need it, even if it means extending probation terms.

While this is one of many solutions being proposed and discussed this legislative session, it is an important and critical component that balances the need to hold people accountable while giving them access to the treatment and rehabilitative services that can help them exit the criminal justice system permanently. Restoring incentives for drug court participation and ensuring the availability of comprehensive, evidence-based rehabilitation services are critical steps toward addressing substance abuse and crime in our communities.

Kelly Vernon is 2024 president of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) and Chief Probation Officer of Tulare County.