Drug offenses are one of our Nation’s leading problems. More than half of criminal offenders that have been arrested test positive for drugs (1). In addition, a significant amount of cases that go through the court system are somehow related to drugs. While many of these offenders who go through the system are convicted and sentenced for major drug offenses in conjunction with other violent felonies, many of these offenders are simply non-violent substance abusers who are arrested for simple possession charges. Under the regular court system, these kinds of offenders would almost always recidivate. After realizing that the system clearly was not working to reduce recidivism, the first drug court was implemented in Miami-Dade County in 1989 (2). Since its implementation, the use of Drug Courts has gained popularity by the criminal justice system. By 2010, over 2,633 Drug Courts were operating in every US State and territory (2).
Drug Courts are defined as “special court calendars or dockets designed to achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse among nonviolent, substance abusing offenders by increasing their likelihood for successful rehabilitation through early, continuous, and intense judicially supervised treatment; mandatory periodic drug testing; and the use of appropriate sanctions and other rehabilitation services” (3). A drug offender has many needs other than substance abuse rehabilitation. Most times, substance abusers have poor overall health in areas such as physical and mental health, housing and family assistance, job training and placement assistance and living skills (6). Instead of punishing an offender for his or her conduct, drug courts have three primary goals: (1) to reduce recidivism, (2) to reduce substance abuse among participants, and (3) to rehabilitate participants (3). By successfully completing the drug court treatment program, an offender can lead a clean and successful life.
Drug courts utilize a specific model to accomplish the three goals. Some of the key components of drug courts are: (1) creating a non-adversarial relationship between the defendant and the court, (2) identifying a defendant’s needs for treatment and referring them, (3) monitoring offenders by drug testing, (4) maintaining judicial interaction with each participant, (5) monitoring and evaluating program goals and gauging their effectiveness, (6) rewards and sanctions for participant, among many others (3). By addressing an offender’s unique needs, this program can individualize to each offender to help him or her be successful in life.
Since its implementation, Drug Courts have been a popular subject for researchers who are interested in determining the effectiveness of this program. Numerous studies have compared recidivism rates of Drug Court participants versus offenders in probationary programs. One study found that after two years, the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 40 percent before drug court to 12 percent (4). According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), drug courts tend to reduce crime; “Nationwide, 75% of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program” (5). In addition, many studies have concluded that Drug Courts can reduce crime as much as 35% more than other sentencing options (5).
In addition to reducing recidivism rates, Drug Courts also save tax-payers money. In fact, the NADCP states that “for every $1.00 invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone” (5). When you take into account the number of criminal offenders in Court and the costs of going to Court versus the costs of Drug Courts, this is a substantial amount of money being saved. The NADCP further states that “Drug Courts produce cost savings ranging from $4000 to $12,000 per client. These cost savings reflect reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrest and trials, and reduced victimization” (5). These are just two of the major benefits of Drug Courts. Other benefits include ensuring compliance from participants, combating meth addictions, and restoring families.
Overall, Drug Courts are continuing to show that it is effective in rehabilitating offenders and reducing recidivism. Drug Courts have reduced crime among participants, it reduces the costs of going through court, reduces the costs of crime, and helps participants turn their life around. While it has shown to be effective, only time and more research will show the long-term effects on crime and the criminal justice system.
(6) Drug Courts: A Bridge Between Criminal Justice and Health Services by Suzanne L. Wenzel, Douglas Longshore, Susan Turner, and Susan Ridgely. Journal of Criminal Justice.