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Pretrial Diversion

The Emergence Of Drug Courts

The drug court approach improved on the TASC model in a number of ways, principally by forging a stronger role for the judiciary: specific courtrooms were dedicated solely to drug cases, the presiding judge was given a more proactive role in fashioning treatment plans, and drug court judges also became central figures in monitoring treatment and program compliance.

No longer an extralegal process managed by external social welfare programs, diversion became a fully integrated part of the criminal process for drug court cases, using the coercive power of the court to promote abstinence and compel participants to stay in treatment (Belenko, 1998). While many had been restive about the notion of compelling defendants to accept employment and social services under the threat of prosecution, when applied to the problems of drug use, "coerced treatment" was now viewed as the program's primary strength (Drug Strategies).

Most observers credit Miami's Dade County Circuit Court for developing the first treatmentoriented drug court in 1989. Within ten years the concept of drug treatment courts gained national prominence and estimates of the number in planning or operation ranged from four hundred to six hundred. During those ten years, an estimated 140,000 drug offenders had entered drug court programs (Belenko, 1999). Initially designed as a diversion program for less serious, primarily possession-offenders, by the year 2000 most had established probation and post-pleabased programs for more serious offenders with long histories of drug abuse (National Drug Court Institute).

The initial impetus for the extraordinary growth of drug courts can be traced to the volatile market for crack cocaine that developed in the 1980s, bringing with it a dramatic increase in the rates that young people (particularly African American males) killed and were killed (McDonald). Although crack cocaine use peaked in the mid-1980s, heroin made a comeback in the early 1990s and abuse of methamphetamines began to show sharp increases in the mid-1990s. During these years, the federal government responded with a "war on drugs" that provided a massive infusion of federal dollars for drug law enforcement (Brown). Beginning in the mid-1970s with the passage in many states of tough mandatory minimum prison sentencing laws for drug trafficking and moving to the passage at the federal level of anti-drug statutes in 1986 and 1988, the entire criminal justice system focused on the war on drugs. Annual arrests for drug crimes increased from 416,000 in 1970 to 1.6 million in 1998 with corresponding increases in the number of drug law offenders in state federal prisons (McDonald). Yet despite the unprecedented increases in arrests and incarcerations, it was clear that these traditional solutions had not materially affected levels of drug-related crime. The stage was set for introducing treatment into the adjudication process.

During the decade of the 1990s, the drug court movement also benefited from the endorsement of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (who had founded Miami's program when she served as Florida's state attorney for Dade County) and the substantial federal support provided by the Department of Justice. By 1995, a separate Drug Courts Program Office was established within the U.S. Department of Justice with $12 million to support drug courts, growing to $40 million by fiscal 1999.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPretrial Diversion - Goals And Program Procedures, General Diversion Programs, Diversion Of Drug Abusers, The Emergence Of Drug Courts