Wariness, excitement follow plans to expand drug courts

The federal court system has long had a reputation for hard-line drug policies, handing down mandatory sentences that send even low-level offenders to prison for years.

Drug courts, specialized diversion programs that let eligible nonviolent defendants avoid incarceration if they undergo addiction treatment, have become increasingly prevalent at the state level. Yet they remain unusual in the federal system, found in fewer than one in four judicial districts across the country.

The Trump administration’s opioid commission wants that to change, calling for drug courts to be extended nationwide as “a proven avenue to treatment for individuals who commit nonviolent crimes because of their SUD [substance use disorder].”

Supporters say drug courts are a compassionate, practical response to addiction-fueled crime and a revolving prison door. But the experience in Massachusetts, where participants in the state drug courts have often been sent to jail for days, weeks, and even months if they relapse or are kicked out of treatment programs, has given rise to skepticism about expanding the approach on the federal level.