Proceed carefully with 'drug docket' court reforms

Advocates for creating “a separate drug docket” in Connecticut’s court system to deal with defendants charged with criminal drug possession must make the case that the approach will improve outcomes, not just generate judicial bureaucracy.

Two freshman Republican lawmakers, in separate pieces of legislation, call for creation of drug-related dockets. They are state Rep. Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme and Rep. Kevin Skulczyk of Griswold, where he also serves as first selectman.

Their bills are at this point legislative place keepers, void of details. The Cheeseman bill would require “the Chief Court Administrator to establish a pilot program drug docket at the superior court having criminal jurisdiction in and for the geographical area of New London.”

The Skulczyk bill has similar language but does not identify it as a pilot program. Both bills call for tapping federal funds contained in the 21st Century Cures Act, recently approved by Congress to address what has become a national crisis of opioid addiction and overdose deaths.

Connecticut law already provides opportunities for those arrested for drug possession and crimes associated with drug use to avoid incarceration by entering into treatment programs. Defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges cooperate in these efforts.

Likewise, the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made it a priority to reduce incarceration by using the prison system primarily for those guilty of violent crimes, while giving defendants whose actions are tied to addiction the chance to get straight.

The problem with these second-chance opportunities is that adequate rehabilitative services are not always available. Also, defendants forced into treatment through the courts can lack the commitment or the mental and emotional state of mind necessary for successful recovery.

If there are ways for the court system to do this better, and to structure improvements and reforms in a manner that will attract federal funding, then the legislature should proceed. The introduction of the legislation is a necessary step in having that discussion.

But lawmakers should beware of new mandates and added bureaucracy that may only add cost and complexity without producing desired results. Any reforms must recognize that drug crimes often overlap with associated criminal activity, including robbery and burglary to support addiction.

It is good to see our elected representatives tackling this crisis. The challenge is to do it right.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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