Drug Courts – A Viable Alternative to Criminal Adjudication and Incarceration?

Drug courts are specialized, court-administered programs designed to provide treatment options for addicted offenders in the criminal justice system.  There are over 2800 drug courts operating in all 50 states and U.S. territories; more than half serve adults with substance addiction and dependency. Other drug courts treat juvenile, veteran, and tribal offenders (as well as other targeted populations), but for the purpose of this article we will focus on adult offenders.

The first drug court was established in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida.  Courts there and elsewhere determined that the era’s popular “war on drugs” policies were failing to impact the number and cost of drug-related crimes.  The focus of law enforcement to reduce drug use and distribution by escalating arrest and incarceration rates slowly shifted to reducing the demand for drugs by offering court-based treatment options for addicted offenders.   The drug court movement supports diversion of these offenders into treatment programs designed to eliminate their chemical dependency, thereby reducing the demand and incidence of drug-related offenses.

Across the country, drug courts are administered by local courts with jurisdiction over criminal matters.  They are not actual “courts” in the traditional sense but diversion programs offered within the court system as an alternative to criminal adjudication.  The staff often includes a multidisciplinary team of legal professionals, social service and treatment providers operating under the direction and oversight of a specially-trained judge.  To see the type of professionals who staff the Benton County, Oregon Adult Drug Treatment Court, click here.

Drug court programs vary by duration, eligibility criteria, treatment services, supervision and monitoring standards, and program compliance.  In terms of duration, drug court programs can range from six months to two years, depending on location and resources available.  For example, in Coconino County, Arizona, the program lasts twelve months and offers standard drug court services: substance abuse evaluation and treatment, individual counseling, recovery support groups, and routine and random urinalysis tests in addition to judicial monitoring.  Participants in drug courts must successfully  complete the entire program and remain drug and arrest-free for a specified period of time, typically established by the supervising court or a governing state authority.

Eligibility criteria is also set by state authority (the legislature or an oversight agency), or by  local court administration.  In Miami-Dade County, the site of the first drug court, participation is governed by statute.  Only certain types of offenders are targeted for inclusion; this is true for all drug court programs.  Generally speaking, defendants must be charged with a non-violent, drug-related offense, and test positive for drugs or have an established history of substance abuse at the time of arrest.

There are two tracks for enrollment in drug court: pre-trial diversion and post-plea participation. With pre-trial diversion or deferred prosecution, as it is called in some jurisdictions, an offender who meets the eligibility criteria can be diverted into drug court before entering a plea.  Upon successful completion of the program, criminal charges will be dismissed.   In a post-plea arrangement, the offender must plead guilty to the criminal charges, but sentencing will be deferred or suspended pending completion of the program. Successful completion will close the case without imposition of a sentence or term of probation, or expunge the record altogether.  To see an example of enrollment in a post-plea drug court program, click here to read about the Sacramento County Drug Court.

What if the offender does not successfully complete the treatment program?  In most cases, enrollment is terminated and the defendant is returned to court custody to face the criminal charges that were deferred or suspended.   However, depending upon the nature of noncompliance with the drug court rules, the offender may be allowed to stay in the program but face other sanctions imposed by the supervising judge or clinical staff.  For example, if an offender refuses to submit to a drug screen or misses an appointment, he or she might be subject to more frequent or random test screenings.  Alternatively, if an offender relapses and tests positive after testing clean on multiple screenings, he or she may be ordered to attend additional treatment or counseling sessions.  The supervising judge may require enhanced status hearings to more closely monitor the individual’s progress, or direct the staff to reevaluate treatment levels.  Click here to see examples of sanctions imposed on noncompliant drug court participants in the Douglas County, Nebraska Drug Court.  There are progressive sanctions that can be imposed before program participation is revoked.

Drug courts offer addicted offenders an opportunity to receive treatment rather than incarceration.  They receive individualized clinical evaluation, care and counseling, and their progress is monitored via status hearings with judges and treatment staff.  Upon successful completion of drug court, participants have a higher addiction recovery rate than offenders processed through the criminal justice system, and are less likely to re-offend than their adjudicated counterparts, according to multiple legal and social science studies.  To find the drug courts in your area on CourtReference, click on your state, select Self Help and Legal Research from the Resource Category pull-down menu, and scan the listings for drug or treatment courts.


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