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New Weapon in a Faltering ‘War’ : Orange County will form innovative court in the effort against drugs

U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno was the state attorney for Florida’s Dade County in 1989 when she spearheaded the innovative Miami Drug Court, established to deal with drug addicts out of jail rather than behind bars. Thirty such courts have sprung up across the nation since then and 100 more are planned--clearly a sign of the lack of success in the war on drugs.

Last week more than 50 judges, health care workers and court officials gathered in a Santa Ana courtroom to study the concept. A Portland prosecutor with drug court experience in Oregon praised the program as an improvement over the old system. Now Orange County has decided--rightly--to try a drug court, starting perhaps early next year.

Such courts have one judge handling all cases. Violent criminals are excluded, but in some jurisdictions repeat offenders are eligible, a reflection of the difficulty in conquering addiction. Rather than wait for diversion programs to begin, defendants go directly to court and start treatment. Judges sometimes require weekly appearances and progress reports. The emphasis is on treatment, not punishment.

Last year 3,000 to 5,000 people in Orange County were charged with drug possession. In Los Angeles County, which started a drug court this year, at least 25% of jail inmates are serving sentences for possessing or selling drugs. Those with no histories of violence or other crimes could be dealt with outside of jails, at a far lower expense to taxpayers. Such a change would free cells in the overcrowded jails for hard-core felons. And if drug court was unsuccessful in a case, the criminal still could be sent to jail.

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On Monday a Little Rock judge imposed an absurd 10-year prison term on the son of U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, convicted of selling an eighth of an ounce of cocaine to a police informant he said entrapped him. It was his first offense, but the judge said he had no choice: 10 years was the minimum under state law; the maximum was life.

Excessive prison terms have not worked any better in solving the drug problem than attempts at stopping the growing of opium and coca. It is time to try new and creative solutions, like drug courts.


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