07/19/2011 03:48 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

Martin Sheen Lobbies Senate For Drug Courts

WASHINGTON -- Actor Martin Sheen pressed senators to expand federal funding for drug courts on Tuesday during testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. "Our nation's greatest untapped resource is our addicted citizens," Sheen said. "There is no better investment this Congress can make than in drug courts and veterans courts."

Currently operating in all 50 states, drug courts offer drug offenders the chance to enter treatment programs as an alternative to prison sentences. Veterans courts utilize the same model, coordinating with VA medical centers and community resources to get veterans additional help. The first veterans court was called to order in 2008.

Sheen described how he had helped to found one of the earliest drug court systems, called Options, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1996. Today, he said, drug courts handle approximately 120,000 cases a year.

Sheen was joined at the hearing by "Friends" star Matthew Perry, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and actor Harry Lennix, who all sat directly behind him in the committee room.

Also present in the audience was former Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), an outspoken advocate for addiction recovery programs during his time in the House. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) thanked Ramstad for attending, and pointed out that when another member of Congress, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) struggled with addiction, "it was Jim Ramstad who went to stand at his side."

Other panelists included Benjamin Tucker, the deputy director of state, local and tribal affairs in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Jeanne LaFazia, chief judge of the Rhode Island District Court; Douglas Marlow, chief of science, law and policy for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation.

Sheen stressed the promise of veterans courts to address widespread issues of substance abuse and mental health problems among veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We ask so much of our men and women in uniform, and they ask so little in return. In fact, they are often the last to ask for counseling or treatment," he said. "It is our duty to care for our veterans when they suffer as a direct result of their service to our country.”

Witnesses also emphasized the cost savings to state and local governments of drug courts and veterans courts. According to Marlow, the cost of a year in treatment, on average, is around $7,000, while the cost of incarceration is approximately $22,000.

These cost savings help to explain why drug courts enjoy an unusually broad array of bipartisan support in Congress, as evidenced earlier in the day during a rally in Upper Senate Park. There, Sheen, Anastasio and Perry were joined by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ken.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), along with nearly a thousand drug court professionals.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said that he decided to attend the hearing despite the fact that he is not a member of the Crime and Judiciary Subcommittee because, "these are inspiring things. Treatment doesn't always work, but I want to say that as we get past this current debt crisis…there really is a return on investment [in drug courts], and this saves money and saves lives."

Sheen spoke passionately about what he has seen among drug court graduates in recovery, saying "you witness a fragile, extraordinary change, where a person who has been suffering under all this chaos and baggage [emerges] to the miraculous possibility and hope of coming back to their community." Sheen is a recovering alcoholic, and during the past year his son Charlie Sheen has publicly dealt with his longstanding substance abuse problems.

Following the hearing, both Sheen and Perry met with members of Congress for much of the afternoon.