Drug court success demands commitment to lifestyle change 

The Harris County drug court program is cheaper, and much more effective in dealing with addiction, than locking up repeat offenders, Judge Caprice Cosper ’83 and court officials told Law Center students.  But despite its merits, the program’s caseload is small compared to the enormous number of cases prosecuted through the criminal court system. 

Judge Caprice Cosper class of 1983 presides over one of four Harris County drug courts.
Judge Caprice Cosper ’83 presides over one of four Harris County drug courts.

The STAR (Success Through Addiction Recovery) program with its four drug courts can handle a total of about 140 cases a year, said Laura McCarty, program manager. That compares to about 2,000 in each of the county’s 22 state district criminal courts. “This really is just a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Despite the small numbers involved, the drug court program delivers a remarkable level of success.  The recidivism rate within a year of graduating is 8 percent, McCarty said, compared to 16 percent for drug courts nationwide and 46 percent for those sentenced in the regular criminal court system. And the tax savings are considerable. Harris County spends about $15,000 a year to lock up repeat drug offenders compared to about $6,000 for those going through the STAR program.

McCarty and Judge Cosper ’83 were part of a panel convened at the Law Center that included Michelle Beck, a drug court defense attorney and former prosecutor, and Assistant District Attorney Tara George.  The quartet outlined their perspectives on the alternative justice system during a one-hour event sponsored by the Health Law Organization and Criminal Justice Institute.

The system was mandated by the Legislature in 2003 and it was an uphill battle to convince people that such an unconventional program would work, especially in “tough on crime” Harris County, Beck said. “But it is a wonderful alternative,” said George, who cited how the education process continues with a growing number of people learning how effective it can be.

The key to success, Judge Cosper said, is the commitment of longtime addicts to give up their former lifestyles and work to completely turn their lives around. “This is a lot harder than taking 30 days in jail,” the veteran judge said, referring to the average sentence for repeat possession. “You might as well put that in a box and tie it up with a bow.” The 18-month drug court program includes a demanding schedule of treatment; weekly check-ins before a judge; restrictions on whom you can see and where you can go; and a willingness to work on case-specific issues ranging from education to employment, housing and family challenges. Those who graduate also face a four-year probation period.

Setbacks occur, Judge Cosper acknowledged, but she noted that people who are admitted to the program find it hard to get kicked out. “One thing we know about addiction is that recovery is not a straight line from point A to point B,” she said. The unwritten guideline for sending a person back into the criminal court system is when the program staff wants recovery more than the client does, she said.

To enter the program, a defendant must be a non-violent, repeat offender with a proven addiction and a sincere desire to get help. “We can quickly see if this person is sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Beck said. The program only accepts drug users, not dealers. Defendants can request admittance or they can be referred by prosecutors, police or a family member.

The Harris County drug court program has proved to be highly effective in dealing with longtime addicts who want to straighten themselves out. Panelists at the Law Center included (from left) Tara George, Michelle Beck, Laura McCarty, and Judge Caprice Cosper – a former state district criminal court judge who presides over one of four Harris County drug courts.
The Harris County drug court program has proved to be highly effective in dealing with longtime addicts who want to straighten themselves out. Panelists at the Law Center included (from left) Tara George, Michelle Beck, Laura McCarty, and Judge Caprice Cosper – a former state district criminal court judge who presides over one of four Harris County drug courts.

The payoff can be life itself for an addict, or something as simple as human interaction and a new sense of worth. “These people actually get to talk to a judge and shake hands with people who tell them they are doing a good job,” said George. “It’s the first time for many of them.”

“We see a lot of broken people in drug court,” said Judge Cosper, a former state district criminal court judge. “It’s very rewarding as a judge to deal with people who want help.”

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