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Drug courts are an innovative and effective solution to addressing substance use within the criminal court system.
As the name implies, drug courts are specifically for persons with substance use disorders. These court programs offer individuals the opportunity to enter long-term drug treatment and agree to court supervision rather than receiving a jail sentence. The intensive program requires participants to maintain recovery, take on responsibilities, and work towards lifestyle changes. Under the supervision and authority of the court, their progress is monitored. Ultimately, drug courts reduce crime and affect real, positive change in people’s lives.
In traditional criminal court cases, defendants found guilty of drug charges are punished with long periods of incarceration. Drug court programs recognize that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that affects behavior and impulse control. Therefore, drug court's primary goal is not punishment, it is treatment for the disease. To motivate treatment, the court grants rewards for progress and sanctions for failure to meet program requirements.
Drug court programs are for people charged with or convicted of criminal offenses, are likely to re-offend, and who are experiencing serious substance use disorders.
There is no universal model for drug court programs but there are two common ways in which people enter drug court.
In one model, defendants who meet eligibility requirements are diverted from traditional court proceedings into drug court prior to pleading to a charge. This is commonly called pre-trial or deferred prosecution.
In another model, defendants who meet eligibility requirements plead guilty to their charges and their sentences are deferred or suspended while they participate in the drug court program. This model is referred to as post-adjudication.
Participants who successfully complete the drug court program can have their underlying criminal offenses dismissed or expunged. If a participant fails to complete the program, their case will be processed as it normally would in the traditional criminal justice system.
Drug court programs often include:
Drug courts are operating with incredible success across the country. They are effective at getting people into treatment- a key step in long-term sobriety.
People who complete drug court programs are significantly less likely to be arrested again, compared to those who are sentenced with traditional punishments. The most successful drug courts reduce recidivism by as much as 35 to 40 percent.
Drug courts also are cost beneficial. The National Institute of Justice concluded from a decade-long study of a drug court that “Reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant.”
There are over 3,000 drug court programs operating within the United States. Every state – as well as some federal districts – contain at least one drug court program. Since their inception in 1989, drug courts programs have expanded from serving just adults, to include juvenile drug treatment courts, DUI/DWI courts, family drug courts, and others.