What is Drug Court and How Does It Help Those Suffering From Addiction?

What is Drug Court and How Does It Help Those Suffering From Addiction?

By In Addiction Recovery, Tools for Recovery
Posted April 23, 2018

Millions of Americans spend time in prison due to drug offenses, and many other crimes involve substance abuse as well.

Incarceration temporarily forces abstinence from drugs and alcohol. But once the prison sentence is complete, this sobriety rarely continues in the real world.

Fortunately, drug court provides an effective alternative to traditional court. Eligible offenders who enter a guilty plea have the option of entering the drug court program. Typically, participation is required for a minimum of one year, though more time may be needed to successfully complete the program.

Drug Court: A Brief History

The first United States drug court was created in Miami-Dade County in 1989, in response to rampant crack-cocaine use in the area.

As the number of felony drug cases in Miami climbed, Chief Judge Herbert Klein of Florida’s Eleventh Circuit was commissioned to find an alternative approach to the issue. He proposed a “judicially supervised treatment program for drug abusing offenders.” Florida’s state attorney at the time, Janet Reno, was instrumental in spearheading these efforts, and America’s first drug court was born.

Since then, over 800 similar courts have been established across the nation. In Florida, there are about 100 drug courts in operation, including juvenile, family dependency, and DUI courts. There were over 6,500 admissions into Florida’s drug courts in 2016.

How Does Drug Court Work?

Drug court is designed to address substance abuse as an underlying issue that results in criminal behavior. The program is typically offered as an alternative to probation or incarceration. Initial screening for inclusion in the drug court program occurs during the booking process that follows arrest.

Most drug courts target adults, including Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) offenders, parents with pending child welfare cases, and an increasing number of veterans. Others address juveniles, while some are specifically for women. There are also at least 100 tribal drug courts.

If a judge sees potential for the offender to become an effective member of society, and if the offender is serious about treatment for addiction, drug court is a viable option.

Typically, individuals with felony convictions or a history of more than two drug sale or trafficking convictions are ineligible. However, this may vary from court to court.

Drug courts are usually managed by a multidisciplinary “treatment team” of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community corrections, social workers and treatment service professionals. On occasion, offenders must plead guilty to be eligible for drug court, but some cases are accepted prior to a plea.

Although the program is tailored to meet the defendant’s needs, it generally includes:

  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Counseling/integrated mental health treatment as needed
  • Court progress sessions
  • Regular drug testing
  • Mandatory work and/or educational training
  • Graduated sanctions and incentives

Completion of the Program

Completing Drug Court

To successfully complete the program, participants must avoid arrest and substance use for a specified period of time. Other requirements, such as securing housing and/or employment, must also be met. Participants attend status meetings with judicial and clinical staff to monitor their progress.

Throughout the process, participants receive rewards or sanctions based on compliance. Rewards can include verbal praise and certificates, along with progressing to the next phase of the program, which may involve less frequent court visitations. Sanctions may include verbal admonishment, writing essays, jail time, or being kicked out of the program.

Upon successful completion of the program, the defendant’s charges will be reduced or dropped and the case closed.

Most drug courts also have graduation ceremonies for those who successfully complete the program. Typically, a keynote speaker is invited. Graduates share their stories and are awarded a certificate of completion. Current drug court participants are invited to attend for encouragement and motivation.

On the other hand, if the defendant drops out of the program or doesn’t fulfill requirements, the original charges are reinstated and the case proceeds through the traditional court system.

Is Drug Court Effective?

According to the National Institute of Justice’s Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation(MADCE), drug court programs are producing measurable results.

Participants reported less drug use (56 percent versus 76 percent for traditional court participants) and were less likely to test positive for substance use (29 percent versus 46 percent). They also reported less criminal activity (40 percent versus 53 percent) and had fewer rearrests (52 percent versus 62 percent).

Similarly, a ten-year study in Oregon’s Multnomah County Drug Court found that five or more years after completing drug court, re-arrests were significantly lower for participants than for comparable drug offenders who went through the traditional court system. And an analysis of 30 drug court evaluations found an average 13% decline in reconviction rates.

In Florida, 220 children were reunited with their parents in family dependency drug courts in 2016 alone. The same year, 102 drug-free babies were born to female drug court participants.

Additionally, although drug court is costlier than traditional court due to the resources provided, studies and cost-benefit analyses indicate that it ultimately pays off. As participants use drugs and commit crimes at lower rates, the program saves courts and taxpayers money in the long run.

The Multnomah County evaluation, for instance, found that over ten years, drug court saved the county $9 million based on case processing alone. When taking into account factors such as reduced recidivism, jail time, and victimization, drug court saved taxpayers close to $88 million.

Personal testimonials on the success of drug court are also abundant. Westmoreland County Drug Treatment Court graduate J.R. Minniti, almost two years sober, says, “The supervision is very intense at first and then it backs off gradually, which is what a lot of people need. It’s clearly what I needed.” He also revels in the fact that his family trusts him again, saying, “It means everything.”

At his Ottawa County Drug Court graduation, Damion Tall said, “If it wasn’t for the people in this room — I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be doing like 10 years,” Tall said. “But they gave me a chance. With that chance, I wanted to do what was right.”

Participants say that drug court isn’t about punishment, and officials genuinely want to help them. For those who truly want to be helped, drug court often works.

Effectiveness of drug court

Criticisms of Drug Court

Not everyone believes that drug courts are an effective way to help those with substance abuse issues.

Law professor Jordan Blair Woods explains, “Drug courts perpetuate [addiction] stigma because they are based on a system of rewards and punishments. When participants act ‘badly’ (either by testing positive for drugs or breaking other imposed conditions that create a presumption of drug use), they are treated as pariahs, not patients. For continuing ‘bad’ behavior, drug court participants can be eventually incarcerated, which is the ultimate representation of societal segregation and ostracism.”

District Judge Morris B. Hoffman argues, “By simultaneously treating drug use as a crime and as a disease, without coming to grips with the inherent contradictions of those two approaches, drug courts are not satisfying either the legitimate and compassionate interests of the treatment community or the legitimate and rational interests of the law enforcement community.”

Drug courts also frequently have limited availability and resources, with 45 percent reporting difficulty finding available treatment slots for offenders.


Although additional improvements may be needed, drug court represents a positive alternative for criminal offenders who struggle with substance abuse. Here, the focus is on long-term rehabilitation rather than punishment.

This not only benefits participants, but it benefits society as well. Drug use is often a factor in criminal behavior. This means that if the substance abuse issue can be resolved, criminal behavior and rearrests may decline as well, saving potential future victims of crime and taxpayer money.

Incarceration of addicts rarely leads to long-term sobriety, but drug courts are producing promising results. To find out more about how we help those in the drug court system call 1-888-249-2590 or click here.

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