01/29/2013 10:28 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Lindsay Lohan: Punishment or Treatment?

In December, Lindsay Lohan's probation was revoked and her case was scheduled for a hearing on January 30. Ms. Lohan's pending court date will undoubtedly rekindle the debate over the proper response for repeat offenders, particularly those with a substance abuse history. From one side, we will hear demands for incarceration; from the other, outcries for treatment. While I do not know Ms. Lohan or the details of her case, I do know that for offenders who are addicted, neither jail or treatment alone works. Drug Courts do.

Ms. Lohan's case was originally scheduled to be heard by Commissioner Jane Godfrey who presides over a variety of dockets in Los Angeles, including Drug Court. Because of her affiliation with Drug Court, various reporters and media outlets have painted Godfrey as a judge who "doesn't like jail" and printed commentary that Ms. Lohan may receive a "get out of jail free card." Regardless of the decision in Ms. Lohan's case, these mischaracterizations illustrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how Drug Courts work and why there is no better way to get addicts clean and prepared for a life of long-term recovery and productivity.

California has repeatedly experienced the devastating social and economic cost of substance abuse and crime. The state spends more than $47,000 a year to house an inmate in prison, and nearly half of all inmates are addicted. Unfortunately, upwards of 80 percent of drug abusers will commit a new offense, typically drug-driven, upon release. In contrast, it costs an average of $7,000 to put a person through Drug Court and approximately 75 percent of people who complete Drug Court are never arrested again. Those who characterize Drug Court as soft on crime are flat out wrong. Most graduates will testify that completing a Drug Court program, and confronting their demons head on, is far more difficult than sitting in a jail cell.

It is also not sufficient to simply offer treatment without accountability. Under California's Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (Proposition 36) large numbers of offenders were sent to treatment in lieu of incarceration, but the courts were effectively disabled from responding to noncompliance. Left to their own devices without intensive supervision by a judge, roughly 25 percent of the offenders never arrived for a single treatment session and half of those who did show up for treatment dropped out prematurely before receiving any benefit. The failure of this approach demonstrated that the power and authority of the court is absolutely necessary.

Drug Courts annually refer more people to treatment than any other system in America, but use the leverage of the courts to monitor addicts closely while keeping them in treatment long enough to be successful. While in intensive community-based treatment, participants in Drug Court are regularly and randomly tested for drug use, required to appear frequently in court for the judge to review their progress, and immediately receive rewards for doing well and sanctions for not living up to their obligations. This common sense approach not only cuts crime and saves tax-payers a fortune, but also improves employment and keeps families together.

California spends nearly $8 billion annually on prisons without having a significant impact on reducing substance abuse and related crime. If the state is serious about reducing its prison population, then resources must be put towards a better approach. Regardless of the outcome of Ms. Lohan's upcoming court date, her case is one of tens of thousands of cases each year that would be better off being dealt with through Drug Court.