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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Podcast: What’s Not to Love About Drug Court as an Alternative to Prison? Plenty.

3 Substance

This Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) podcast features a conversation between Allan Clear, the longtime HRC executive director, and author and Middlebury College Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca Tiger. They question not only the idea that drug courts are a humane alternative to prison but other easy assumptions, too.


“Drug courts are proof that progress is being made toward a more rational and effective approach to people with addiction. Instead of being locked up for years, a nonviolent drug user who breaks the law has the option of entering abstinence treatment, with the threat of prison if they do fail. Drug courts are cheaper than incarceration and reduce crime rates.”

These are the views held by many advocates and many former drug users put through the system. Most liberals sympathetic to the addiction-as-disease model agree. At least drug courts are better than prison, right?

Not so humane after all? Photo via

Not so humane after all? Photo via

In her provocative recent book, Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, Rebecca Tiger takes a critical look at these rosy assumptions. Her extensive reporting and research inside the drug-court world reveals many troubling facts. A few examples:

An invention of the legal establishment, drug courts now serve as a bulwark against the drug decriminalization movement.

Candidates are often cherry-picked based on their perceived likelihood of success—the goal being to generate the best-possible pro-drug court data.

The judge has almost unlimited authority, allowing for unjust, unethical and even outright sadistic decisions in the name of “tough love.”