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Drug Courts

A special court with jurisdiction over cases involving drug-using offenders. Drug courts are treatmentbased alternatives to prisons, youth-detention facilities, jails, and PROBATION. These courts make extensive use of comprehensive supervision, drug testing, treatment services, immediate sanctions, and incentives.

Drug courts concentrate the efforts of judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, substance-abuse treatment specialists, probation officers, law enforcement and correctional personnel, educational and vocational experts, community leaders, and others on individuals who are charged with illicit drug abuse. The criminal justice system works cooperatively with treatment systems and others to provide an offender with the necessary tools to get into recovery, stay in recovery, and lead a productive, crime-free life.

The drug court acts to help the offender change his or her life in order to stop criminal activity, rather than focusing only on punishment of the offender. Drug courts also help to provide consistent responses to drug offenses among the judiciary, and they can foster coordination between intervention agencies and resources, thus increasing the cost-effectiveness of drug-intervention programs. Successful completion of the drug court's treatment or intervention regimen usually results in the dismissal of drug charges, shortened or suspended sentences, or a combination of these. Participants acquire the wherewithal to rebuild their lives.

In 1989, the nation's first drug court was established in Miami, Florida. Circuit Court Judge Herbert M. Klein had become troubled by the negative effects of drug offenses on Dade County. He became determined to address the problem caused by widespread drug use. This first drug court became a model program for the nation.

Drug courts that followed the Miami model essentially began as diversionary programs that dealt with non-violent offenders. These subjects typically were charged with relatively minor offenses, such as simple drug possession or charges of driving under the influence.

At first, drug courts were geared toward adult populations. The successes of adult drug courts in intervention and in changing the lives of adult offenders prompted juvenile courts to establish similar drug court programs aimed at juvenile offenders. Juvenile drug courts likewise have proven successful, and now many jurisdictions include family drug courts that primarily hear substance-abuse and neglect cases.

Differing needs across jurisdictions have resulted in a variety of drug courts in terms of their structure, scope, and target populations, but they all share three primary goals: reduction of RECIDIVISM, reduction of substance abuse among participants, and rehabilitation of participants.

To achieve these goals, drug courts generally structure themselves to include the following features:

  • Incorporation of drug testing into case processing.
  • Creation of a non-adversarial relationship between the offender and the court.
  • Identification of offenders who are in need of treatment and referring them to treatment as soon as possible after arrest.
  • Access to a continuum of treatment and rehabilitation services.
  • Monitoring of abstinence through frequent, mandatory drug testing.
  • Establishment of a coordinated strategy to govern drug court responses to offenders' compliance.
  • Maintainence of judicial interaction with each drug court participant.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of program goals and effectiveness.
  • Continuing education to promote effective drug court planning, implementation, and operations.
  • Forging of partnerships among drug courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations in order to generate local support and to enhance drug court effectiveness.

Drug courts can be used for a variety of case types and are adaptable enough to fit the needs and acceptability of any given community. Jurisdictions tailor their drug courts to meet the specific needs of their communities. Most drug courts are pre-plea courts, but some drug courts are post-plea, and others are used as a method of alternative sentencing. In a pre-plea program, charges are deferred while the defendant is actively participating in the drug court program. At that point in the process, he or she has not pled guilty to any charges. This program is designed principally for non-violent, first-time, low-risk offenders.

Post-plea drug courts are not as common but are used mostly in the cases of more serious offenders when the prosecutor wants to ensure a guilty plea in order to avoid a trial. The chances of a more serious offender successfully completing a program in a drug court might be reduced, but the prosecution's trial-preparation time is saved in the event of failure.

As drug courts have consistently proven to be effective at controlling both the drug use and the criminality of drug-using offenders, communities have successfully expanded drug court programs to include those who are on probation for drug offenses, extending them to drug-using offenders who are charged with non-drug offenses. Some jurisdictions are even beginning to apply the drug court model to cases of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). In doing so, DUI courts, like the traditional drug courts, make DUI offenders accountable for their actions in ways that go beyond standard punitive measures such as fines and incarceration, thus helping to bring about a behavioral change among some DUI offenders that ends DUI recidivism, halts the abuse of alcohol, and protects the public.

The VIOLENT CRIME CONTROL AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ACT OF 1994, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1033, 1034, signed by President WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON on September 13, 1994, was a key factor behind the expansion of the drug court movement. This statute provided federal support for planning, implementing, and enhancing drug courts for nonviolent drug offenders. The Act was the product of six years of bipartisan efforts. It remains one of the largest crime bills in the history of the country and provides for a competitive grant program to support state and local drug courts that provide supervision and specialized services to offenders who have rehabilitation potential.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) administers the drug court grant program that was established under the 1994 Act. The BJA provides financial and technical assistance, training, program guidance, and leadership. It offers grants to jurisdictions for planning, implementing, or enhancing existing drug courts. In conjunction with the National Institute of Justice, BJA also evaluates drug court programs to identify the most effective program features and organizational structures to combat drug abuse and crime. State courts, local courts, units of local government, and American Indian tribal governments may apply for funding. $29 million was available in 1995, and $971 million was authorized under this program to cover the years 1996–2000.

The record of success, supported by large, federal support initiatives such as the 1994 Act, led to a rapid proliferation of drug courts throughout the United States. By the end of 2000, nearly 600 drug courts were in operation in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and two federal districts. Another 456 drug court programs were being planned.

Over 300,000 drug-using offenders have participated in drug court programs since 1989. In 2001, Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse updated its 1998 review of drug court research and evaluations. The updated report concludes that drug courts continue to provide the most comprehensive and effective control of the drug-using offenders' drug-related criminal activity and drug use while under the drug court's jurisdiction. For example, the average rate of recidivism for those who complete the drug court program is between 4 percent and 29 percent, as compared to 48 percent for offenders who do not participate in a drug court program.

Drug courts have paved the way for the latest criminal justice innovation: therapeutic JURISPRUDENCE. Accordingly, several jurisdictions are developing special dockets that are modeled after the drug court format. Courts and judges have become more receptive to new approaches and thus have brought about a proliferation of problem-solving courts, including DUI courts, domestic-violence courts, mental-health courts, and re-entry courts.


Hennessy, James J., and Nathaniel J. Pallone, eds. 2001. Drug Courts in Operation: Current Research. New York: Haworth Press.

Nolan, James L., Jr. 2001. Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

——. ed. 2002. Drug Courts in Theory and in Practice. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine De Gruyter.

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