New York State has become the first in the United States to formally adopt the drug court program, in a move expected to divert as many as 10,000 drug-addicted criminals from prisons to intensive rehabilitation each year.
The decision follows successful trials of the diversionary sentencing program in some of New York's worst drug-crime districts over the past three years.
The results of that program drew international attention, encouraging the NSW Government to launch its own drug court trial in Parramatta last year.
The formal adoption of the scheme across New York State is predicted to reduce the State's prison population by more than 10 per cent and save up to $US500 million ($844 million) a year on the cost of keeping addicts in jail.
Chief Judge Judith Kaye, who enjoys sweeping powers as head of the New York State judiciary, announced the reform this week as a way of both easing the burden on the overcrowded prison system and of reducing recidivism among addicts.
The program will now move out of the narrow sphere of designated drug courts and into the mainstream judicial system.
Judges will be required to offer drug addicts accused of non-violent crimes the option of undergoing closely supervised rehabilitation as an alternative to jail.
The reform is seen as the liberal antidote to the conservative doctrine of mandatory sentencing.
The momentum of conservative politics in states such as California and Texas has brought increasingly punitive responses to minor drug crimes, skewing the law towards locking drug users away.
New York now leads the liberal counter-offensive of using social policy to intervene in drug cases and attempt to break the cycle of drug abuse and crime through intensive rehabilitation.
The drug court trials returned remarkable results, with 70 per cent of addicts completing the courses and remaining drug-free.
The reoffending rate of drug addicts entering the program was cut to just 12 per cent, compared with 35 per cent for those who served jail time.
Addicts who choose to enter the statewide diversionary program will be required to first plead guilty to their charges, a move that is expected to significantly reduce the court time spent on following minor cases through the long process of trials and appeals.
They will then be required to undergo two years of treatment in the State's drug centres, a period longer than they would probably have spent in jail.
Their progress will be closely monitored by court-appointed case managers. If they drop out of the program or reoffend, they will go straight to jail to serve sentences longer than they would have originally received.
"It's an approach that is steeped in rationality and common sense," Mr Timothy Murray, a pioneer of the drug-court system, told the New York Times.
"It's astonishing to see the results when people go through court-mandated treatment."
Copyright © 2000. The Sydney Morning Herald