Could Ashcroft roll back drug policy reform?

Bush's choice for attorney general might halt efforts to emphasize treatment over incarceration, opponents fear.

Published January 17, 2001 4:32PM (EST)

The pending confirmation of John Ashcroft as the Bush administration's attorney general is worrying to those on the front lines of the battle against drug addiction. Advocates of programs like drug courts, which emphasize treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenses, are reviewing past statements by the former Missouri senator, who has often taken a hard line on drug policy. His past comments likening treatment programs to people who aid a drug habit are disturbing to leaders in the drug court movement, who fear that if Ashcroft is confirmed, the very existence of their nascent programs could be threatened.

Here are a couple of examples of statements Ashcroft has made about drug policy:

  • "A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the interdiction of drugs and converts them to treatment resources ... and also implements a clean-needle program is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least."

  • "When you consider the person and spirit of Christ, he was interested in finding ways for people to reach their potential, to work at their highest and best. He didn't accommodate people at their lowest and least. That's been a major fault of our government. When it says to ... a person on dope, 'Here's a clean needle and a treatment program, so in case you have a bad trip, we'll be there for you,' that's not real love. Real love respects the person so profoundly it says ... 'We're not going to provide a clean needle because we don't know of a way in which helping you have a drug-addicted life is in your best interest.'"

    Ashcroft, whose confirmation hearings continue Wednesday, may have made these remarks years ago, but renewed scrutiny of the statements has led to concerns that he would divert much-needed funds away from drug courts.

    "For a critical person to come on the scene and throw a bucket of ice water on the value of treatment is a terrible message to send to courts ... that are trying to find better ways of dealing with the horrendous problems that we have in this country," says J. Michael Kavanaugh, a drug court judge in Albuquerque, N.M. "I think it speaks of a future where we take many, many steps backward instead of continuing the good work and the progressive movement that drug courts have provided in this country." Albuquerque's program started in 1997 and has been very successful, Kavanaugh says, in helping to rehabilitate those addicted to alcohol or drugs. Those who go through the program have only a 10 percent recidivism rate, compared with 30 to 40 percent for those not enrolled.

    Kavanaugh's state is a leader in the drug policy reform movement. A blue-ribbon panel commissioned by New Mexico's Republican governor, Gary Johnson, recently called on the governor and the Legislature to shift the state's drug policy from one of interdiction to one that decriminalizes marijuana and emphasizes treatment over penal measures. The panel also recommended the diversion of many cases to drug courts.

    Drug courts are different from regular courts in that they advocate treatment as an alternative to incarceration. They're administered on a local level, with varying policies from county to county. Most require that the person plead guilty to the offense for which he has been charged and then submit to regular drug testing after treatment. Initially, only those who committed minor drug offenses qualified for the program, but drug courts have recently expanded to include drug users facing charges not related to drug use.

    Despite their local administration, drug court programs rely on federal funding to operate. The role of the attorney general is central, say many drug court advocates, not only in maintaining the bipartisan support needed to continue the programs but also in determining how many federal dollars will be allocated to them. Although the specific amount of funding is ultimately Congress' decision, the attorney general's influence in the matter is crucial. For example, the federal budget for drug court programs in 2001 was increased by $10 million, to $50 million -- the exact amount that Attorney General Janet Reno's Department of Justice requested, according to a DOJ spokesman.

    Reno's support for drug courts is believed to have been an important factor in their growth. In fact, she helped start the first drug court in the United States in 1989, when she was a prosecutor in Dade County, Fla. There are now more than 600 across the country.

    "The growth of drug treatment courts has been aided by the attorney general's personal involvement in the creation of such courts in Dade County," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "It was always clear that this initiative had her strong personal blessing."

    While Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney transition team, says that Ashcroft has not taken a specific position on drug courts, he is committed to combating the country's drug problem, she says. "He has said that he is interested in any demonstrated effort to fight the drug epidemic and he would look at various ways, including new and innovative ideas, to that end."

    Some organizations are fighting Ashcroft's confirmation because of what they believe would be his enormous influence on drug policy as attorney general. David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, points to a slew of reasons why he believes drug courts will be endangered. "Ashcroft thinks the role of government in this area is to arrest people and patrol the borders and fight the war," Broden says. "He doesn't think it's in the area to help people." Broden says Ashcroft has supported mandatory minimum sentences for drug users, and he suspects that Ashcroft would oppose introducing methadone into the drug court system because he views it as a separate drug rather than a legitimate treatment for heroin addiction.

    As a senator, Ashcroft responded to a campaign to equalize the disparity in sentences for crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine users by reducing sentences for crack cocaine users by supporting, instead, increased sentences for powdered cocaine users. He also opposed White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey's anti-drug advertising campaign. Although, as reported previously in Salon, the ad campaign has been criticized for its Hollywood script doctoring, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says it has contributed to a 21 percent decrease in teenage drug use over the past two years.

    After more than a decade of observing offenders in Miami's drug court, public defender Bennett Brummer, co-founder of the first drug court with Reno, says there's no doubt that the program has worked and that the statistics should be all Ashcroft needs to be convinced of its effectiveness. After one year, 95 percent of those who went through Miami's program are still drug-free; after five years, the proportion is 75 percent. Brummer thinks one of the key reasons drug courts work is that only those who opt for it are admitted, in contrast to some other court sentences under which people are ordered to undergo treatment.

    "Ashcroft has an unfortunate perspective [toward treatment], because disinterested people such as Miami-Dade County have been evaluating these programs for years to see if they warrant continued funding, and those programs have been shown to be more effective than Prohibition-style incarceration," says Brummer. "But many people cling to [incarceration] from a moralistic point of view, even though it doesn't help people lead drug-free, law-abiding lives." Drug courts are also more cost-effective, Brummer says. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, incarceration of a drug-using offender costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per year, in comparison with a cost of $2,500 per year for each offender in a drug court program.

    In North Dakota, two counties launched drug courts on Jan. 5, largely because of the success of such programs in Florida and California, and both counties will soon apply for additional federal grants. "We started to take a look at some alternatives to the current course of action and recognized that we needed to try to do something different," says Pat Bohn, intensive programs coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Corrections. "The definition of insanity is repeatedly beating your head against the wall and expecting a different result. And that's the point we've reached; we need to try something else and that's drug court," he says.

    Certainly, there are subtler actions than drying up federal funds that could dramatically alter the effectiveness of these programs. One way in which the attorney general, if confirmed, might voice his opposition to this type of treatment is through an executive branch order, Sterling says. For example, the urine of program participants is regularly tested for drugs, and if they test positive, there is a gradually increasing scale of sanctions. The attorney general could mandate that participants must be removed from the program if they test positive after just a single drug test.

    For Judge Kavanaugh, there is no easy way to describe how much of a difference he thinks the program has made in his state. Because New Mexico's system requires offenders to make regular appearances in court, Kavanaugh is able to witness their path to recovery. Much of the time, he says, the change is reflected less by the fact that one-time addicts are holding down a job or upholding other requirements of the program than in their faces.

    "I can see those physical transformations that take place as people progress -- their improved health -- and I can even tell it in their complexion," he says. "Those addicted to alcohol retain a pinkish tone to their skin. When they remain sober and dry, and clean of drugs, their complexion literally returns to normal." And with the renewed support of family members who weren't always there before, Kavanaugh says, participants can get on with their lives again.

  • By Dawn MacKeen

    Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

    MORE FROM Dawn MacKeen

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