Philadelphia Drug Courts: ‘Really just scratching the surface’

Matthew Schmonsees, the coordinator for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, came to talk to our class about treatment courts in Philadelphia. However, rather than having a background in criminal justice or law, Schmonsees started his career in behavioral health care.

Schmonsees works as a coordinator for the drug court and the DUI court within Philadelphia’s treatment courts system. This month, the treatment courts in Philadelphia will celebrate 20 years of service. Schmonsees, who has been with the courts since 2009, said treatment courts started in 1989 in Miami and are widely considered the “newest criminal justice innovation. Now, he added, there are nearly 3000 drug courts in the United States.

Schmonsees got involved with the courts when he was working as a counselor. He would go to the courts weekly to check in about his clients’ progress, and eventually joined to continue helping people. The main goal of treatment courts, he said, is to divert from incarceration, help individuals enter treatment and to supervise the whole process. He said most people the courts serve are first offenses — primarily individuals who are arrested on felony charges for distributing drugs. The Philadelphia drug courts take about 200 cases each year into the year-long program, and the graduation rate from the program is about 78 percent. Of the graduates, 91 percent of the individuals get their charges expunged from their records.

Schmonsees said there is evidence that the system works better than incarceration and costs less than keeping someone imprisoned, but the drug courts simply don’t have the resources to help the nearly 5000 people who are arrested each year in Philadelphia for distribution. The courts are “really just scratching the surface,” he said.

The main goal, Schmonsees said, is to keep expanding the program until he “puts [himself] out of business.”

About the author

Erin Moran

Erin Moran is a junior journalism major and political science minor at Temple University. She currently works as a Deputy Features Editor of her college newspaper, The Temple News, and a regular freelancer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chestnut Hill Local. Contact Erin at tuf62032@temple.edu.

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By Erin Moran