Drug Courts

Drug courts are therapeutically oriented courts that attempt to reduce drug-related crime through a mixture of treatment and judicial oversight. Dade County, Florida, established the first drug court in 1989. By mid-2006, there were 1,563 drug courts in the United States, including 411 juvenile drug courts. Single- and multisite studies of drug courts, as well as meta-analyses, suggest that drug courts are more effective than traditional criminal courts in reducing recidivism, though this finding does not apply to all drug courts, nor does it apply to all defendants who appear before drug courts.

In the 1980s, the federal government and many states enacted stricter drug laws, which increased the number of defendants charged with drug-related offenses. In addition, it is estimated that between one fourth and one half of adult arrestees and one half of female arrestees are at risk of drug dependence. Drug courts were set up as a vehicle for diverting at least some of these defendants to treatment on the assumption that successful treatment would reduce the risk of future offending. The emergence of drug courts, and their rapid growth, was also stimulated by significant funding by the federal government, as well as other types of local and state funding.

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Drug courts do not adhere to a single, rigid model. For example, they may differ on target populations, the types of treatment that are available, and program completion and retention rates. Despite these differences, most of them share several defining characteristics. First, they focus on providing early assessment and diversion to treatment. Some courts do this prior to adjudication of the charge, while others require the person to plead to the charge as a condition for receiving treatment rather than criminal sanctions. Second, drug courts monitor the person’s adherence to treatment and other conditions established by the court, through regular oversight by probation and treatment staff and through status hearings conducted at regular intervals by the court. As part of monitoring, the defendant is subjected to frequent drug testing. Third, drug courts use a mix of incentives and sanctions in an effort to shape behavior. Incentives may include gift certificates, praise of the defendant’s efforts in public judicial hearings, and graduation ceremonies on successful completion of the treatment program. Punishment for infractions, such as a failed drug test or a missed court date, often relies on graduated sanctions, including incarceration. Fourth, if the person successfully completes the treatment program, the charge may be dropped (in jurisdictions that use a pre-plea model) or expunged from the person’s record (in jurisdictions using a postplea model).

There are other differences between drug courts and traditional criminal courts. The creation of a drug court in a jurisdiction affects the way in which criminal cases are assigned to various judges. In the absence of a drug court, there is usually little effort to assign drug-related cases to a particular judge; rather, these cases are assigned for disposition in the same way that other criminal cases are assigned. In contrast, drug courts are specialty courts, and one of the characteristics of specialty courts is that cases involving defendants eligible for the court are typically consolidated before one judge. Drug courts are also therapeutically oriented, which has an impact on the role of the judge and attorneys. The adversarial process is at the heart of the traditional criminal court. However, in a drug court (as with other therapeutically oriented courts) the adversarial process is deemphasized, on the ground that it may be an obstacle to a therapeutic outcome. Instead, the judge, the defense attorney, and the prosecuting attorney are supposed to be united in working for the outcome that best enhances the defendant’s therapeutic prospects while not placing public safety at risk.

The judge plays a dual role; on the one hand, the judge seeks to create a relationship with the defendant that increases the likelihood that the defendant will comply with treatment, while on the other, the judge retains the authority to punish the individual for behavior that deviates from the dispositional plan. Drug courts, like other therapeutically oriented courts, also are likely to spend more time on an individual case and emphasize the opportunity for the defendant to participate in the design of the treatment plan and other conditions that the defendant will be required to meet.

There have been many studies of drug courts, including single-site, multisite, and meta-analyses. While many of these studies reportedly rely on different methods and/or have methodological flaws (e.g., few are random-assignment studies) and comparison across studies is difficult because of the lack of uniformity in what is being measured, the most recent meta-analysis concluded that drug courts are more effective than traditional criminal courts in reducing recidivism and in enabling defendants to reduce substance use. It has been suggested that a number of factors may influence the effectiveness of a specific drug court, including the characteristics of the offenders eligible for the drug court program, the characteristics of the drug court program itself, the available treatment services, and community contextual issues. Studies to date do not provide conclusive evidence on the effect of any of these discrete variables, though research suggests that drug courts relying on a single treatment provider and drug courts using a single preplea or postplea model (rather than a mixed model) achieved better outcomes.

Drug courts and therapeutic courts are not without controversy. Some commentators question whether a therapeutic orientation dilutes defendant rights. Others debate whether the use of coercion is effective and ethical in mandating treatment compliance. Despite these continuing debates, the number of drug courts continues to grow, and at this point, they have become part of the judicial mainstream.


  1. Goldkamp, J. S. (1994). Justice and treatment innovation: The drug court movement (National Institute of Justice Update, NCJRS Document Reproduction Service No. NCJ 149 260). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
  2. S. General Accounting Office. (1997). Drug courts: Overview of growth, characteristics, and results. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. S. General Accounting Office. (2005). Adult drug courts: Evidence indicates recidivism reductions and mixed results for other outcomes. Washington, DC: Author.
  4. Wilson, D. B., Mitchell, O., & Mackenzie, D. L. (2006). A systematic review of drug court effects on recidivism. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2, 459—487.

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