Editorial

San Juan County Drug Court is an important program | Editorial

Punishment vs. rehabilitation.

Which do you think is more effective?

If you look at the United State prison system, it’s clear that punishment has led the way. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world.

While there are many reasons why the U.S. criminal justice system needs an overhaul — race, gender and income disparities, severe sentences for low-level offenses, immigration-related lock-ups — we’d like to focus on one piece of the puzzle: rehabilitation programs.

We are proud to say that our county has its very own therapeutic program for drug offenders. The San Juan County Adult Drug Court awarded its first certificate of graduation to Jordan Lynn-Jefferson of Orcas Island on July 7. Read more about his journey in this week’s edition.

Launched in January 2019, the county’s drug court is designed to reduce substance abuse and criminal recidivism and increase rehabilitation and community safety. Drug court suspends the traditional criminal case while the individual engages in an intensive two-year process that includes frequent court hearings, evaluation and treatment for substance abuse and addiction and testing for drugs and alcohol, living skills classes, facilitated goal setting and continued education and/or employment assistance. Ultimately, criminal charges are dismissed or reduced upon successful completion and graduation.

With programs like this, instead of being placed in a cell with few resources for growth, the offender has a chance to learn how to change future behavior and find clarity on why the crime was committed. Rehabilitation helps with re-entry into society, increases the chance of long-term success and reduces the risk of recidivism. It is also usually less expensive than incarceration, which costs an average of more than $34,000 annually per inmate (Vera Institute of Justice). Taxpayers are responsible for footing those bills.

The United States has actually seen an unprecedented drop in prison numbers, declining from around 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-2020, which is a 14 percent decrease. Per the Vera Institute, this was triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from advocates to reduce incarceration.

Norway, which is considered to have the best prison system in the world, has proven the success of rehab programs. According to the BorgenProject, Norway’s prisons have evolved into spaces that represent comfort, healing and inclusivity: “Norway is molding high-functioning members of society. In return, former prisoners are gaining the necessary skills in order to contribute to Norway’s economy. As of 2014, Norway’s incarceration rate was at only 75 per 100,000 people. In addition, since developing its new prison system in the 1990s, its recidivism rate has decreased from around 60-70% to only 20% in recent years. The main reason for these statistics is due to a focus on ‘restorative justice,’ an approach that identifies prisons in the same category as rehabilitation facilities.”

We believe in the benefit of criminal justice programs that address mental health and addiction, particularly when you consider that most justice-involved people in the U.S. are not accused of serious crimes but with misdemeanors or non-criminal violations (https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html.)

Thank you to the San Juan County Drug Court for believing in people’s ability to transform their lives for the better. And congratulations to Jordan Lynn-Jefferson. We wish you the very best.