A drug court is a specialized docket program that targets criminal offenders and defenders, juveniles in the justice system, and parents with pending child welfare cases where there are drug dependency or alcohol problems in their lives. There are currently more than 3,000 drugs courts operating in the United States that run these exclusive dockets, with about 50% of them handling adult cases.
You will also find drug courts that specialize in DWI charges, veteran’s cases, tribal concerns, and offenses that occur at the federal level in the United States. Although they vary in the populations they target, the design of the program and availability of resources is typically the same.
There are five steps included in the approach of a drug court.
- Offender screening and risk assessment.
- Judicial action.
- Supervision, monitoring, and drug testing.
- Graduated incentives or sanctions.
- Better availability of treatment and rehab services.
Because drug courts take a non-traditional approach to criminal justice, there are several pros and cons to evaluate when looking at this rehabilitation idea.
List of the Pros of Drug Courts
1. The cost of a drug court is less than what incarceration costs.
When looking at the short-term costs of managing offenders who qualify for a drug court, this system is comparatively cheaper to the standard practice of incarceration. There is reduced use of jails and prisons, lower court costs, and reduced levels of recidivism because this system bridges the gap between the judicial and public health systems in a community. It inspires a higher level of cooperation between all agencies to ensure that people can gain access to the resources they need.
The average drug court receives about $10 million per year in funding to provide resources. In some states, that the equivalent to housing about 150 inmates in a jail or prison for only a year.
2. It reduces the levels of criminal behavior and drug abuse.
When offenders qualify for a drug court and follow the activities mandated by the judge, then there can be significantly lower levels of criminal behavior and drug abuse. Graduates of the system have lower rates of recidivism compared to those who serve their time without a public health intervention. Although the programs do not track rates that go beyond 12 months, the initial successes that this idea generates can help people find ways to reintegrate back into society without risking their safety or the health of others.
3. Drug courts keep offenders in treatment programs for a longer time.
One of the advantages that a drug court provides to a community is the ability to keep people in treatment programs longer. Other forms of intervention may not be able to impose the same restrictions on an offender that a judge can in this situation. When an individual can stay in their program, then the chances of achieving a better outcome increase significantly. That means people can graduate from these programs, look for meaningful work, and begin to increase their standard of living.
4. It raises the level of awareness in the community for service availability.
When there is an active drug court in a community, the everyone benefits from the experience. Probation officers, law enforcement, and social service providers receive more information about the treatment options that are available locally, making it easier to use non-violent intervention techniques. This advantage also provides information about the understanding of drug offender behaviors and the usual sensitivity they have for talking about their addiction.
These tools give people more options in the fight against the harmful outcomes that drugs almost always provide.
5. Drug courts provide offenders with an opportunity to receive treatment.
Under the rules of the criminal justice system, an offender who receives a prison sentence will not undergo rehabilitation. That person is stuck with the same addiction without any coping skills, which increases the likelihood that they’ll reoffend. They’ll also receive a prison record, making it a challenge to find a job once they serve their time. Prison can even cause them to lose their families, learn new criminal behaviors, and create more of a safety risk for society.
That’s why a drug court is a useful system. Instead of going to prison, they go through rehabilitation so that there is a chance for them to reintegrate into society.
6. Relapses still cause offenders to go to prison.
Almost everyone agrees with the idea that a drug addiction is best treated by a health professional. Keeping that system separate from criminal justice makes it easier to implement the interventions which could be necessary to give someone the help that they require. Although some critics say that drug courts go easy on people who are convicted of non-violent drug-related crimes, a failed drug test or relapse at any time during the program can revoke an offender’s status and send them to jail.
7. Offenders must complete intense, frequent sessions to say in compliance.
Treatment services, defendant supervision, and ongoing monitoring are intensive in all of the drug court programs. It is usually more immediate as well, sometimes occurring right after an arrest. During the initial phase of the program, it is not unusual for someone to be required to attend all ordered treatment sessions. They must undergo random drug testing and urinalysis to demonstrate compliance. There are also regular appearances before the judge in the drug court to monitor progress.
There is only a decrease in intensity when a defendant shows continuing and consistent compliance with the judicial orders. Almost every drug court in the United States has a procedure for the immediate execution of a bench warrant for anyone who fails to attend one of their hearings.
8. Judges have several options available to them for non-compliance.
Critics charge that termination from a drug court program does more harm than good, but the forced removal from treatment services is usually a worst-case scenario situation for judges. It is an option that is put to use with public safety is at issue or the individual is willingly failing to stay in compliance with the conditions of the program.
Judges have the discretion to ask for enhanced treatment services when a relapse occurs. Some offenders might be ordered to take daily drug tests. There can be community service requirements or a “shock-based” temporary order for incarceration. The goal of the program is rehabilitation, but it requires the cooperation of the individual to be successful.
9. Treatment programs can work with other rehabilitation services.
The structure of a drug court suggests that the approach to stop individual drug use involves well-structured treatment services, coordinated responses, and comprehensive programs that other rehabilitation providers can offer. There are usually underlying problems in an offender’s life that leads to alcohol or drug use in the first place. Sobriety might be a top priority, but there must be an effort to address the root cause of the behavior.
Under the structure of most drug court programs, graduation cannot occur until that person’s long-term needs are met in some way. That can mean a requirement to obtain a high school diploma or GED certificate, obtain or maintain employment, develop mentoring relationships, and demonstrate responsibility through schedule maintenance.
10. It frees up the prison beds for the violent offenders and serious criminal cases.
The average savings per defendant with a drug court is at least $5,000 in jail bed days alone. In addition to the potential for cost savings, the other elements of the criminal justice system enable local agencies to allocate resources more efficiently so that serious or violent criminal cases can receive a top priority. This advantage makes it possible for a community to incarcerate those who present the most significant safety risks to the general population.
Having a dedicated drug court docket also frees up the caseload space for other judges so that a faster trial process can occur for those who do have serious or violent offenses. This advantage can even make it possible for the severe offenders to fulfill their entire sentence because overpopulation is no longer an issue.
11. It stops the revolving door that police officers see in their communities.
Police officers and prosecutors in the jurisdictions that have a drug court say that the presence of this docket enhances their credibility when implementing the functions of their job. It gives them the tools needed to create an effective response to substance abuse issues. Instead of having people come into the criminal justice system, leave, and then return constantly, defendants are no longer released into the community to continue using drugs shortly after their arrest. There is an opportunity to put them directly into supervised drug programs that can sometimes be paid through drug-related asset forfeitures.
List of the Cons of Drug Courts
1. It can cause drug offenders to receive a lighter sentence for their actions.
The goal of a drug court is to keep non-violent users out of jail so that they can receive the treatment that they need. Because there are legal ramifications to such a behavior, there can be community members and groups who feel like a judicial sentence to a treatment program is a lighter sentence than the jail time that someone deserves. Some critics even suggest that the presence of a drug court encourages people to break the law so that they can receive treatment opportunities that they would not be able to afford otherwise.
2. There is less supervision with a drug court compared to probation programs.
Another issue of a drug court structure that some critics mention is the fact that drug courts are less effective and more expensive than a traditional probation program. If an offender receives a sentence that takes them to a treatment program, then they are not under the same reporting restrictions as someone who must report to a PO. Doctors may not have the same criminal justice training either, which makes it easier for some offenders to manipulate the system.
3. It eliminates the benefits of treatment and therapy with a relapse.
“It is important to question whether the drug court model is best-suited to dealing with the particular issues posed by drug addiction,” writes Theshia Naidoo, Senior Staff Attorney for Drug Policy Alliance, in a letter to the editor published by The New York Times in 2013. “Drug relapses should be met with more intensive services rather than be a pathway to incarceration.”
Drug courts can provide benefits to the offenders who see success during the initial intervention period. If someone has been using for quite some time, the effort to quit an addiction may encounter several relapses. We understand the science of addiction for cigarettes, but then fail to apply the same standard to illegal drugs like heroin.
4. Offenders must usually forgo their trial rights to participate in the program.
The programs for a drug court must be inherently coercive to encourage people to participate in the rehabilitation efforts that are available in the community. Most of them require a defendant to plead guilty as a stipulation for joining, which means they must forgo their right to a fair trial to receive the benefits of participation. Although this facilitates more speed in the delivery process, the ends cannot justify the means.
This disadvantage creates a structure where people are told that they will either go to jail or treatment, so plead guilty to avoid the former. It may be a process that is helpful for some, but it is not advantageous for everyone.
5. It can result in more jail time than if the individual had entered a standard guilty plea.
Drug courts often throw people who relapse into jail even though it is an expected and natural occurrence for an individual with a substance abuse disorder. When that person is behind bars, treatment is almost non-existent until they serve their “shock” sentence and return to the program. As a result of this disadvantage, people with multiple stays in jail because of their struggle to avoid drugs can end up having a longer sentence than if they had decided to plead guilty to their original charges and avoid the docket altogether.
6. Drug courts can overrule the treatment recommendations of a physician.
Medication-assisted therapies that include buprenorphine and methadone have helped manage the issues of addiction with people who struggle with opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States considers this medical intervention to be the gold standard for treating this problem. Physicians often prescribe the medication to reduce withdrawal symptoms and alleviate cravings so that a recovery is more likely to succeed.
Drug courts in many jurisdictions often reject these recommendations, sometimes to the extent that they deny access to these medications. That means there is a higher risk for relapse which could ultimately result in an overdose. Methadone maintenance programs can save up to $13 for every $1 invested into them.
7. Some jurisdictions can cherry-pick their participants to boost their success rates.
Drug courts might sometimes choose to admit people that they feel will have the best chance for success in the program instead of offering the services to those who have the severe substance abuse problems that need the intervention. People who face simple drug possession charges without a lengthy record or serious problem kind of get a slap on the wrist with this program. By overlooking those who need the extra help, it can lead to an increase in community crime, expensive prison sentences, and poor life outcomes.
8. It can function as an intervention of last resort.
Communities need to start looking beyond the potential benefits of a drug court to continue reducing the harms that drugs and the laws which make them illegal can cause people. The LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program in Seattle, WA, is an excellent example of this need. Police officers have the option to divert non-violent drug offenders to social services programs to receive treatment, supervision, and support until they no longer need it instead of going straight into the judicial system.
The results speak for themselves. Seattle has used LEAD to reduce recidivism rates by 58% since the program began in 2011. Since the first drug courts began hearing dockets in 1999, their recidivism rates are down by 12%.
Conclusion of the Pros and Cons of Drug Courts
Drug courts try to be non-adversarial in their approach to discipline and legal consequences. Instead of creating a standardized sentencing matrix that encourages incarceration for non-violent offenses, this legal structure offers access to a multidisciplinary team that includes treatment service professionals, social workers, community corrections personnel, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and the judges implementing the docket.
There are no perfect answers to criminal justice in any society. The goal with a program like this one is to create more successes than failures.
The pros and cons of drug courts do show that when there is support from a person’s family, their community, and law enforcement, people are willing to be accountable to accept the treatment they need to become healthy once again. This structure helps to reduce the risks of failure.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.