As the number of criminal arrests across the country continues to be disproportionately made up of non-violent drug offenses, drug courts are stepping in to attempt a different approach to criminal justice and reform. A recent study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health stated that around 9% of Americans struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. While many of those individuals do not commit crimes, the fact of the matter is that drug addiction and alcoholism have a correlation with criminal activity. This criminal activity however is typically directly tied to an individual’s substance abuse issues, meaning that the core problem is drug and alcohol abuse.
Drug courts were initially founded, and continue to grow, based on the theory that treating a non-violent drug offender for their substance abuse issues will have a drastically positive impact on their lives and significantly reduce their chance of re-offending. Instead of enforcing lengthy prison sentences which typically include little to no actual substance abuse treatment, individuals are required to undergo extensive treatment for their addictions and given the opportunity to reduce or eliminate their charges if successful. This not only allows them to overcome their substance abuse, but many times allows them to avoid the complications of having a permanent criminal conviction on their record.
While they may not be perfect, drug courts have undoubtedly helped many of those who have found themselves in the grips of drug and alcohol addiction overcome their problems and recover from their issues. The explosion of these programs across the country are a direct result of changes in the criminal justice system which now call for a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Where in the past, much of the focus of the courts was to convict criminals and lock them up for as long as possible, the sheer number of drug convictions has forced court officials to re-think their approach. Instead, today many parts of the country see the benefit of doing everything possible to treat individuals and put them in a situation where they can successfully contribute to society, forgoing the need for lengthy prison sentences and instead allowing them to take control of their own lives in a positive way.
The history of drug courts
As the war on drugs began to grow during the 1980s, the number of drug related arrests had grown across the country significantly. This increase in arrests began to strain the criminal justice system including not only the courts but jails and prisons as well. Eventually the percentage of individuals who were locked up in jail or prison for drug related offenses became the significant majority of most institutions. Unfortunately, recidivism rates actually increased during this time as the options for addiction treatment inside of jails and prisons was woefully inadequate.
In 1989 Miami-Dade County, Florida initiated the first drug court program in the county. This program allowed non-violent drug offenders to receive substance abuse treatment instead of jail or prison time and allowed many of them to defer or ever repeal their convictions upon completion of the program. Following their treatment offenders were monitored by substance abuse professionals and were required to take regular drug tests to monitor their continued sobriety. As the program grew it managed some success in reducing the number of those who re-offended and was able to reduce some of the strain on the criminal justice system.
Due to this success, many states and counties across the country took note and began to institute their own drug courts. As of 2016 there were nearly 2,500 drug courts across all fifty states and have helped a large number of people receive treatment for their addiction without overwhelming the courts and prison systems unnecessarily.
In recent years, due to the opioid crisis in America, some counties have gone even further by introducing specific drug courts for opioid abusers. These programs are in many ways very similar to standard drug courts, but with one significant exception: time. Many standard drug courts take an approach to treatment which allows an offender to begin at a lower level of care such as an intensive outpatient program and only requires inpatient treatment if that is unsuccessful. In some cases, an individual may not go to an inpatient program for many months after beginning their time in drug court. In opioid drug courts however, offenders can often be sent to treatment in a few hours, not a few months.
Because these new opioid courts are still in their infancy hard data about their effectiveness is still not available, however the main idea behind them is to get people treatment right away in the hopes that fatal overdoses are avoided.
How do drug courts work?
Drug courts are criminal justice programs which are typically run through specific county or municipal court systems. They are designed to address the issue that many criminal offenders in America are struggling with drug addiction, which may be the primary cause of their criminal activities. The thought is that by treating the addiction, these offenders can be reformed into law-abiding citizens without the need for more expensive, and often time less effective, criminal punishment protocols like jail or prison time.
Because there are thousands of drug court programs across the country, most of them have different specific policies and procedures. Most of them do however follow a standard model, with some potential variation.
These programs always begin when an arrest is made, a judge and prosecutor determine if the offender is eligible for their specific drug court program. The most common universal restriction is that the offense be non-violent and directly related to substance abuse. Many programs also have restrictions such as the number of times an offender may attempt a drug court program before they become ineligible.
One an individual has been determined to be eligible and appropriate for a drug court program they are sentenced and introduced into the program. Most drug courts have stipulations that allow an offender to have any convictions removed or significantly reduced as long as they successfully complete to program. However, individuals who are not able to complete the programs are typically required to serve their original sentence and their conviction remains.
Once a person begins the drug court program they begin various aspects of treatment for their substance abuse which typically includes frequent drug and alcohol testing to monitor an individual’s abstinence from substances, as well as regular attendance at substance abuse treatment classes, and visits to either a social worker or probation officer.
Depending on the individual’s ability to stay clean from drugs and alcohol and follow the rules and regulations of the drug court, they may progress through the program gradually reducing the number of substance abuse classes that they must attend and undergoing drug testing less frequency. The total length of these drug courts can vary from as short as six months to a few years, however the end goal is always the same: prove to the judge that you have stayed clean from drugs and alcohol for a specified amount of time and are ready to re-enter society as a law-abiding citizen.
While some people are able to utilize the initial stages of drug courts and stay clean from the beginning, many offenders still struggle. Not being locked away in a prison or a jail means that access to drugs or alcohol is still very real and unfortunately some people require more intensive treatment before they are able to stop. If an individual is unable to stay clean during the initial outpatient phase of the program they will eventually be required to attend an inpatient treatment program which can range in length from 28 days to six months.
After their inpatient treatment the offender will re-enter the outpatient stages of the drug court and attempt to complete it by staying sober. Eventually, the participant will either complete the drug court program or they will be revoked from the drug court program and forced to serve out their original sentence.
Are drug courts helping addiction?
While there are many critics of drug courts across the country, most criminal justice officials and substance abuse professionals agree that they are helpful and much more appropriate than standard sentencing. Forgoing normal jails and prisons, which typically have very limited or no substance abuse treatment programs, for drug courts which mostly use much more robust treatment programs and facilities means that individuals who are struggling with substance abuse are much more likely to receive the treatment that they desperately need.
Most of the supporters of drug courts across the country point to multiple studies which have shown recidivism rates among drug court participants to be significantly lower than those who are processed through traditional court and punishment programs. In some studies, the recidivism rates can be as much as 30% lower. This can mostly be attributed to the fact that many people arrested for drug offenses are primarily committing criminal activities in order to sustain their addiction. Once the substance abuse issue has been properly treated, these individuals no longer commit crimes as the reason they had committed them in the past has been resolved.
Drug courts are not without their issues however, as some believe that they are not cost-effective and that there are more effective ways to treat the growing substance abuse issue across the country. Many of the criticisms against drug courts fall into two camps. The first argument against drug courts is financial as some studies have suggested that drug courts are actually less cost-effective than traditional punishment methods. It is important to note however that there are also many studies which suggest a clearly positive cost-benefit analysis of drug courts, some citing economic benefits exceeding $600 million per year for the entire country.
The second argument against drug courts is not necessarily that they are ineffective, but that there are other options which would be even more effective if set in place. The issue that most of these detractors point to is the fact that community based free treatment centers are often times exceedingly difficult to enter for those who have not been convicted of a crime and only when someone is arrested are they able to easily receive treatment for their substance abuse. Therefore, if expanding community and state funded treatment facilities were to occur, more individuals would be able to receive treatment before they are ever arrested.
While this solution would be ideal, they wouldn’t completely eliminate the need for drug courts as not everyone who struggles with substance abuse is willing to receive treatment without being required to attend by a judge. Still, easier access to community treatment programs should theoretically reduce the number of criminal offenders in drug courts and potentially have significant social and economic benefits to our country.