Criminal Justice

Effectiveness of drug court is questioned after shooting death of police officer

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A man accused of killing a New York City police officer this week was on the streets through provisions of a drug court, despite a lengthy rap sheet and probation violations, the Associated Press reports. The incident has become the center of renewed debate over the effectiveness of such courts.

Tyrone Howard was a longtime user of PCP but had not been convicted of a violent crime. Since age 13, the 30-year-old Howard has been arrested more than two dozen times and twice sentenced to prison for drug possession and sales. He was charged with selling crack to an undercover officer in 2014. Supreme Court Justice Edward McLaughlin found that his difficult home life and longtime addiction qualified him for referral to a drug court for evaluation. A judge there put Howard into a diversionary program.

Howard soon was missing monthly status meetings and court appearances, and was a suspect in a September shooting, which led to an outstanding arrest warrant. When two police officers stopped him on a possible bicycle theft, Howard allegedly shot 33-year-old officer Randolph Holder in the forehead, killing him.

McLaughlin defended his decision to refer Howard to the drug court, telling the AP, “I don’t get a crystal ball when I get the robe.”

McLaughlin notes that he had not been informed about Howard’s earlier arrest in a 2009 gunfight on an East Harlem basketball court. Howard was not prosecuted, apparently because there was no eyewitness testimony, reports the AP.

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton describes Howard, 30, as a career criminal and says, “He would have been the last person in New York City I would’ve wanted to see in the diversion program.”

Drug courts were first used in Miami in 1989 and now there are more than 2,500 around the country handling about 120,000 cases annually. They deal mostly with nonviolent offenders, with programs involving treatment and drug testing.

“Drug courts are the most effective intervention in the justice system for individuals with substance abuse histories,” says Carson Fox, executive director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Studies have shown that drug courts reduce recidivism and return to drug use, but also that drug-court drop-out rates are about 60 percent. Law enforcement officials believe that some drug dealers get breaks because they claim they’re addicts and avoid prison.

“It’s critically important that you get the right people” into drug court, says Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.

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