Research • Policy • Practice

What are Drug Courts?

Per the ACLU, in the United States, there are currently over 2.3 million people incarcerated, which accounts for roughly 25 percent of the world’s offenders. In  addition, over the past 40 years alone, there has been a 500 percent increase in incarceration. This led to overcrowding in prisons and economic drawbacks that shifted the responsibility of finding the solution on to the states, despite the emerging proof that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety. With the system broken, a group of justice experts established what is now known as problem-solving courts (PSC).

These courts are unique because they:

  • Serve as a form of deferred adjudication

  • Focus on rehabilitating and treating individuals entering the criminal justice system, rather than taking on the normal penal role as do the traditional courts

  • Emphasize individualized justice, where the court identifies the services the defendant needs as well as provide the victims of the offense any services needed for their recuperation

  • Collaborate with a team of court officers, judge, and the treatment community (e.g., medical provider) to achieve the goal of restoring the defendant as a productive member of society

  • Integrate intensive supervision, mandatory drug testing, incentives and sanctions, and treatment approaches to ensure the individual receives the treatment for their substance use.

The founders of the first PSC, the Drug Court Diversion program, wanted this distinctive court process to discuss the underlying issues – this issue being substance use disorder – offenders normally face in the criminal justice system (CJS). By engaging in novel tactics to approach those issues, drug courts can provide a more simplified path for individuals in the court system, while providing a path to avoiding a sentence. Since the inception of the first PSC in 1989, this strategy has begun to be implemented across the country. Through legislative action and the policy implications provided by the court system, actors in the policy process have begun to turn towards a problem-solving approach, rather than contributing to the mass incarceration rates of the U.S.

With the crack-cocaine epidemic of the late 20th century, the establishment of drug courts, beginning in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, revolutionized how the judicial system would approach drug offenses and addiction. By choosing to be a part of this program, participants have the chance to be diverted from the commonplace court system and the sanctions that typically follow.

It is because of drug courts’ higher standards of individualized supervision and treatment regimen, versus most state-mandated program models, that people that choose to be a part of this program show lower rates of recidivism and drug use upon completion of the drug court program and in the future.