What are Drug Courts?

What are drug courts?

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.

Drug Courts Emphasize Long-Term Recovery Over Punishment

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.

How Do Drug Courts Work?

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.

What Makes Drug Courts Unique?

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:

  • Participation over a series of months or years to establish and maintain long-term recovery strategies
  • Frequent and random drug tests
  • Clinical treatment for substance use disorders
  • Individualized case management services, connecting participants to employment opportunities, community service, pro-social activities, and education
  • Required frequent appearances in court
  • Rewards for maintaining treatment plans and sanctions for failure to meet obligations
  • Support and encouragement from the drug court team

The Results

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.”

3,800 Drug Courts and Counting

There are over 3,800 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 treatment courts, mental health courts, veterans treatment courts, tribal healing to wellness courts, and others.


Want to learn more? Be sure to check out the Office of Justice Programs’ most recent flyer on drug courts that outlines the differences between court types. In addition, it highlights the federal entities that exist to provide training and operational resources to treatment courts.

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Treatment Courts