Drug Courts

Drug Courts in the United States

Drug courts have operated in the United States for more than 20 years, involving the collaborative efforts of the judiciary, prosecutors, community corrections agencies, drug treatment providers, and other community support groups. Drug courts combine treatment with incentives and escalating sanctions, mandatory and random drug testing, and aftercare, and are a proven solution that reduces substance use, prevents crime, and maximizes limited financial resources.

A Smart Approach to Criminal Justice

Drug courts, which combine treatment with incentives and sanctions, mandatory and random drug testing, and aftercare, are a proven tool for improving public health and public safety. They provide an innovative mechanism for promoting collaboration among the judiciary, prosecutors, community corrections agencies, drug treatment providers, and other community support groups.  The effectiveness of these special courts  is well documented.  In times of serious budget cuts, the drug court model offers State and local governments a cost‐effective way to increase the percentage of addicted offenders who achieve sustained recovery,
thereby improving public safety and reducing costs associated with re‐arrest and additional
incarceration. Every $1 spent on drug courts yields more than $2 in savings in the criminal justice system alone.

Because the problem of drugs and crime is much too broad for any single agency to tackle alone, drug courts rely upon the daily communication and cooperation of judges, court personnel, probation, treatment providers, and providers of other social services.

President Obama’s FY 2012 Budget request includes approximately $101 million for drug, mental health, and other problem‐solving courts, including Veterans Treatment, Tribal Healing to Wellness, and Family Dependency Treatment Courts.  This demonstrates the Administration’s support for increasing and enhancing access to substance use disorder treatment. With more than 2,500 drug courts in operation today, approximately 120,000 Americans annually receive the help they need to break the cycle of addiction and recidivism.


  • Drug courts operate on the local level to divert non‐violent offenders with substance use problems from incarceration into supervised programs with treatment and rigorous standards of accountability.
  • The courts connect the judicial, law enforcement, and treatment communities with other systems and provider organizations through comprehensive case management to address participants’ other needs, such as education, housing, job training, and mental health referrals.
  • Drug courts help participants recover from addiction and prevent future criminal activity while also reducing the burden and costs of repeatedly processing low‐level, non‐violent offenders through the Nation’s courts, jails, and prisons.
  • Approximately 47 percent of counties in the United States are served by drug courts.
  • A review of five independent meta‐analyses concluded that drug courts significantly reduce crime by an average of 8 to 26 percentage points; well‐administered drug courts were found to reduce crime rates by as much as 35 percent, compared to traditional case dispositions.
  • The success of drug courts has led to development of Tribal Wellness, Veterans Treatment, Mentally Ill Offender, Community, and Family Treatment courts.

Drug court programs have a tangible effect on criminal recidivism. A study funded by the Department of Justice examined re‐arrest rates for drug court graduates and found that nationally, 84 percent of drug court graduates have not been re‐arrested and charged with a serious crime in the first year after graduation, and 72.5 percent have no arrests at the two‐year mark.

Additionally, an analysis of drug court cost‐effectiveness conducted by The Urban Institute found that drug courts provided $2.21 in benefits to the criminal justice system for every $1 invested.  When expanding the program to all at‐risk arrestees, the average return on investment increased even more, resulting in a benefit of $3.36 for every $1 spent.

Drug Courts in relation to Crime and Race

Drug Courts is included in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime (1), beginning with: In a drug court, a trial court judge is assigned a docket of cases involving offenders whose crimes are related to their dependency on alcohol or illegal drugs. There are two major types of drug courts: drug case management courts and drug treatment courts. Case management courts are those courts that consolidate all of the drug cases in one court system in order to more efficiently and consistently dispose of (i.e., adjudicate) those cases. This section focuses on drug treatment courts and their operation. In addition, the entry examines issues concerning race and ethnicity, as they relate to drug courts. As the term implies, drug treatment courts emphasize intensive supervision and treatment of offenders with drug or alcohol problems. Drug treatment courts in different jurisdictions address defendants with varying legal situations.

The Drug Court Model

Drug court participants are provided intensive treatment and other services for a minimum of one year. There are frequent court appearances and random drug testing, with sanctions and incentives to encourage compliance and completion. Successful completion of the treatment program results in dismissal of the charges, reduced or set‐aside sentences, lesser penalties, or a combination of these. Most important, graduating participants gain the necessary tools to rebuild their lives.

Drug courts vary somewhat in terms of their structure, scope, and target populations, but they all share three primary goals:


Achieving these goals requires adherence to the core organizational structure and attributes of the drug court model.  This model, which has successfully been replicated in thousands of courtrooms nationwide, includes the following key components:

  • Integration of alcohol and other drug treatment services within justice system case processing;
  • A non‐adversarial approach, through which prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting participants’ due process rights;
  • Early identification of eligible participants and prompt placement in the drug court;
  • Access to a continuum of alcohol, drug and other treatment, and rehabilitation services;
  • Frequent alcohol and other drug testing to monitor abstinence;
  • A coordinated strategy governing drug court responses to participants’ compliance or non‐
  • Ongoing judicial interaction with each participant;
  • Monitoring and evaluation to measure achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness;
  • Continuing interdisciplinary education to promote effective drug court planning,
    implementation and operations; and
  • Forging of partnerships among drug courts, public agencies, and community‐based organizations to generate local support and enhance drug court program effectiveness.

Drug courts following these tenets reduce recidivism and promote other positive outcomes. The magnitude of a court’s impact may depend upon how well the practitioners address and balance these core components and adapt to the needs of their clients and court staff.

Connecting Drug Courts to Law Enforcement

A strong partnership with local law enforcement is a critical component of a successful drug court. Street‐level enforcement officers provide a unique perspective and benefit to drug court teams.  Law enforcement can improve referrals to the court and extend the connection of the drug court team into the community for further information gathering and monitoring of participants.  Law enforcement personnel play important roles not only in the day‐to‐day operations of the drug court, but also in showing other government and community leaders the public safety efficacy of these courts.

A comprehensive study of the key attributes of successful drug courts reinforces the importance of this relationship.  In the 18 adult drug courts studied, researchers found that:
♦ Having a member from law enforcement on the team was associated with higher graduation
rates, compared to teams without a law enforcement member (57 percent versus 46 percent).
♦ Drug court teams that included law enforcement personnel reduced costs an additional 36
percent over the reductions achieved by traditional drug courts.

In recognition of the importance of law enforcement participation in the drug court process, the
National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ (NADCP) National Drug Court Institute (NDCI) has created a National Law Enforcement Task Force.  This Task Force is designed to increase the involvement of law enforcement personnel in the drug court process and gather critical input from key law enforcement leaders across the country.  The Task Force has representatives from a number of law enforcement organizations, including:
♦ International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
♦ National Sheriffs Association (NSA)
♦ National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
♦ Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA)
♦ National Native American Law Enforcement Association (NNALEA)
♦ National Organization of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE)
♦ American Probation and Parole Association (APPA)

To further educate and expand law enforcement involvement in drug courts, NDCI is developing a curriculum for law enforcement personnel.  This curriculum will include information on the medical aspects of addiction, treatment, and recovery, and how to engage substance abuse service providers. ONDCP is providing the funding for this training course, which will qualify for Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) for the enrolled law enforcement officers.

Training & Technical Assistance Resources

With the expansion of drug courts throughout the country, it is critical to ensure standards for drug court implementation and operations are effectively disseminated to the field.  It is also critical for the more than 2,500 courts currently in operation, along with those in the planning and implementation phases, to be fully trained and operating in accordance with the long‐standing, strict standards designed for drug courts to achieve optimal outcomes.
In an effort to maintain efficacy and improve the operations of drug courts, NDCI provides critical education, training, and technical assistance to longstanding as well as newly formed drug courts. NDCI is supported by several Federal agencies, including:
♦ U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of
Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, and the National Institute of Justice)
♦ U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services
Administration (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment)

Juvenile Drug Courts

To prevent young people from cycling through the juvenile justice system or entering the adult criminal justice system, drug courts have been expanded to serve the unique needs of juvenile offenders. In order to further expand and improve juvenile drug courts operating throughout the country, the Administration is working with a number of existing courts to implement best practices for adolescent treatment. In addition, several agencies have partnered to support juvenile drug courts in enhancing their capacity through the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referrals to Treatment (SBIRT) program. This program enables the courts to use a short, non-intensive intervention, which helps identify the most appropriate referrals and admissions criteria for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Drug Courts in the Criminal Justice System


Notes and References

  1. Entry about Drug Courts in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime

See Also

Further Reading (Books)

Goldkamp, J. S. (1994). Justice and treatment innovation: The drug court movement: A working paper of the first National Drug Court Conference. Philadelphia: Crime and Justice Research Institute.

Goldkamp, J. S. (1999a). The origins of the treatment drug court in Miami. In C. Terry (Ed.), The early drug courts: Case studies in judicial innovation. Beverly Hills, Sage Publications.

Goldkamp, J. S. (1999b). Challenges for research and innovation: When is a drug court not a drug court? In C. Terry (Ed.), Judicial change and drug treatment courts: Case studies in innovation. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Goldkamp, J. S. (2000). The drug court response: Issues and implications for justice change. Albany Law Review, 63, 923-961.

Goldkamp, J. S., White, M. D., and Robinson, Jennifer. (2000). Retrospective evaluation of two pioneering drug courts: Phase I findings from Clark County, Nevada, and Multnomah County, Oregon. An interim report of the national evaluation of drug courts. Philadelphia: Crime and Justice Research Institute.

Hora, P. F., Schma, W. G., and Rosenthal, J.T.A. (1999). Therapeutic jurisprudence and the drug court movement: Revolutionizing the criminal justice system’s response to drug abuse and crime in America. Notre Dame Law Review, 74, 439-537.

National Associationof Drug Court Professionals. (1997). Defining drug courts: The key components. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Drug Courts Program Office.

John S. Goldkamp

Further Reading (Articles)

DRUG COURT CONCEPT GAINING.(News)(Statistical Data Included), Daily News (Los Angeles, CA); April 5, 1998


Drug Court Comes out from under the Veil Court More Open Now as It Looks Ahead for Additional Funding Sources, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL); May 14, 2007

A Drug Court Outcome Evaluation Comparing Arrests in a Two Year Follow-Up Period, Journal of Drug Issues; October 1, 2002; Wolfe, Ellen Guydish, Joseph Termondt, Jenna


Drug court called step for practicality Focus will be on treatment, freeing up beds in jail.(News), Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO); March 23, 2007; Doligosa, Felix, Jr.

Drug court: New hope for the ‘sick and tired’; Repeat offenders soon to have another option, Intelligencer Journal Lancaster, PA; January 3, 2005; Justin Quinn

Drug Court gets high marks; Group lauds successes but notes repeat offenses.(NEWS), Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN); July 7, 1999; Adams, Jim

The Drug Court Movement: Recommendations for Improvements. (Feature), Corrections Today; August 1, 2002; Listwan, Shelley Johnson Shaffer, Deborah Koetzle Latessa, Edward J.

Drug court’s secrecy is worrisome, critics say.(The Providence Journal), Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service; February 20, 2001; Rockoff, Jonathan D.


DRUG COURT SAYS IT WILL KEEP GOING, The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA); January 14, 2009; Mike Allen | mike.allen@roanoke.com | 981-3236

Loudoun Drug Court Aims to Treat Addictions; Rigorous Program Targets Nonviolent Adult Offenders in Hopes of Preventing Future Violations, The Washington Post; August 8, 2004; Maria Glod

Drug court plans to expand ; Experimental program will quadruple its capacity, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA); October 9, 2002; Jonathan Martin Staff writer

DRUG COURT TAKES STRICT APPROACH, Post-Tribune (IN); December 9, 1996

Drug Court panel calls for staff, funding, The Sun – Naperville (IL); June 18, 2003; Katie Foutz

Drug court to focus on rehabilitation, Judge says program would provide treatment to addicts instead of jail time, Charleston Daily Mail; January 11, 2008; CHERYL CASWEL

DRUG COURT PROGRAM SUCCESS; DRUG COURT GRADS GET SUPPORT FROM HOPE TAFT, Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH); March 12, 2002; Nancy Bowman Miami County Bureau


Drug Court grads, supporters honored at ceremony, Redlands Daily Facts; October 14, 2004; COLLEEN MENSCHING

Drug Courts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Drug Courts. This part provides references, in relation to Drug Courts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Drug Courts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Drug Courts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Drug Courts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Drug Courts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Drug Courts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Drug Courts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Drug Courts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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