Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A Christian Drug Policy?

Last week, in "The Social Gospel and Social Vengeance," I made the claim that a Christian criminal justice system would look much less vengeful and much more rehabilitative than the American criminal justice system. Rehabilitation is more consistent with loving our enemies, as Jesus taught, than our retributive practices. That sounds great in the abstract, but what does it really mean to "rehabilitate" offenders and how is it that our system is failing to do this?

The story of the Philadelphia "drug court" provides a concrete example of both. The Legal Intelligencer Vol. 230, No. 121 (June 23, 2004). Philly began the unique "drug court" program in 1997. The system works this way: non-violent offenders with drug addictions are given a chance to avoid jail time in exhange for a guilty plea and participation in an intensive, four-phase drug treatment program. The program has worked phenomenally. Only 15% of its graduates are arrested again within a year of completing the program, compared to a 48% nationwide recidivism rate for offenders who don't participate in drug treatment. Not surprisingly, the "drug court" has the support of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and clinical drug treatment professionals.

There's just one problem. Philly decided to slash the program's budget this year. The program was already small, serving merely a couple hundred of the city's thousands upon thousands of drug offenders. Yet, court administrators estimate that this year's budget cuts will mean that the court's intake of addicted offenders will have to be reduced by 75%.

Why is such a successful program being cut? Could it be our tax cut frenzy starving the government of necessary funds? Surely this is part of the answer, but it can't be all of it. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by American University found that the Philadelphia drug court actually saved the city $3.8 million between 2000 and 2001. (Less prison expense, less emergency room treatment, less children on welfare, etc.)

Finances, then, don't explain it all. I think that drug treatment programs are simply unpopular. They don't make the criminals pay. They don't take an eye for an eye. In short, they're just too Christian.

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