8.5. Drug Courts

David Carter

Drug courts are also an innovation of the 1980s, and were first pioneered in Dade County, Florida. They are unique in the ways in which they alter the courtroom environment, to work in a non-adversarial way that attempts to support participants. Judges, prosecutors, caseworkers, and program coordinators all work together in a drug court to oversee not only individuals’ drug treatment, but to work on other aspects of their life that may support long-term recovery. As with other intermediate sanctions, the use of drug courts proliferated in the United States rapidly, to the point that they are now in every state. Currently, there are almost 3,000 drug, treatment, or other specialty courts operating in the United States. This includes many courts that have co-opted the drug court model: Veterans Courts, Mental Health Courts, DUI Courts, Hybrid Courts, Sex Work Courts, and  Juvenile Drug Court, among others. All of these courts seek to leverage the power of the criminal justice system to incentivize offenders’ engagement with diverse forms of treatment.

Drug Court Success

While evidence on the effectiveness of drug courts is also mixed, as a whole, they have been far more successful than boot camps in reducing participants’ rearrest and reincarceration. As with anything, the “success” of bootcamps depends on the metric of evaluation. If we are only talking about the cost savings (drug court vs. jail, or prison), drug courts may be an effective community alternative. If looking at recidivism, their effectiveness depends upon whether we are interested in new drug charges, any arrests, or persistence models (length of time before arrest). Research seems to suggest that drug courts lower the risk of re-arrest for a new drug crime, while some studies have found this model to dramatically decrease recidivism across the board. [1]

Yet recidivism still remains high among drug court participants, and – as with ISP – this model may also result in more jail time for participants, compared to those who are sentenced without mandatory drug treatment. At large, drug courts force compliance with a court-ordered drug treatment by threatening sanctions (and promising rewards). Individuals who repeatedly deviate from the terms set by the court may be sent back to jail for days, weeks, or the remainder of their sentence. For an in-depth review of the overall rating of Drug Courts, which includes over 30 studies of Drug Courts across the United States, see https://www.crimesolutions.gov/topicdetails.aspx?id=238.

  1. Fluellen, R., & Trone, J. (2000). Do drug courts save jail and prison beds? The Vera Institute. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/vera/drugcourts.pdf


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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