How Drug Courts Work

heroin overdose drug courts
Portland paramedics monitor a 29 year-old woman after she was found unconscious from a heroin overdose. One goal of drug courts is to help prevent these kinds of overdoses. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Judge Craig D. Hannah could certainly understand where the defendants in his courtroom are coming from. Presiding from the bench in Buffalo City Court in western New York, Hannah knew the sting of drug addiction. He was once hooked on cocaine, which derailed his chances of becoming an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Moreover, he presides in a city where the number of opioid overdoses has been on the rise for years [sources: Williams, Westervelt].

According to a report by NPR, one day in 2017, 26-year-old Caitlyn Stein stood before Judge Hannah a month after she entered a drug program to treat her heroin addiction. Stein gave the judge a folder brimming with awards and certificates she earned during her stay.


"Oh, you've also been a positive peer mentor," Hannah was quoted on NPR during Stein's court appearance. "Wow. You really did your thing down there. Congratulations. How many days clean?"

"Twenty-nine today, judge," Stein replied.

"Keep up the good work. That's awesome," Hannah told her.

"I will," she said.

Hannah lords over Buffalo's Opiate Crisis Intervention Court, an experimental spin-off of the more traditional drug courts where non-violent offenders do not go to prison but are channeled instead into recovery programs. If any of the defendants who appear before Hannah continues to use, the judge can send them back into the criminal court system, or more likely than not, give them another opportunity to get clean. If a person successfully completes the program, prosecutors can drop or reduce their charges [sources: Williams, Westervelt, The Economist].

Buffalo first implemented its drug court in the 1990s, when crack cocaine was the drug du jour. As opioids began to ravage the city, court officials found that drug court participants were overdosing and dying at an alarming rate. In 2017, with a grant of $300,000, Buffalo's Opioid Crisis Intervention Court opened with Hannah as its chief judge [source: Schanz]. Since its birth in May 2017, only one defendant out of 204 has since died of a drug overdose [source: National Center for State Courts].

The success of Buffalo's Opioid Crisis Intervention Court seems to mirror the accomplishments of other drug courts around the country. Drug courts save taxpayers money, reduce crime and, perhaps more importantly, turn strung-out drug addicts into productive citizens.


History of Drug Courts

drug court Miami-Dade
(From left) former White House office of National Drug Control Policy Directer Michael Botticelli; West Huddleston, former CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals; attorney David Markus, a 1994 graduate of the Miami-Dade Drug Court; Tim Murray, former Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute; and former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Directer General (ret) Barry McCaffrey at the Miami-Dade 25th anniversary drug court celebration. Mitchell Zachs/National Association of Drug Court Professionals

It was the 1980s and many U.S. courts were stretched to the limit, packed with drug abusers strung out mostly on crack. By 1989, the judges in Miami-Dade County were tired of seeing the same people repeatedly come before the bench. Something needed to be done. As a result, the county gave birth to the nation's first drug court.

The idea behind the experiment was simple: Treatment for drug addiction was preferable to jail time. Court officers there began to look at each defendant on a case-by-case basis. Each had unique circumstances. Ultimately a prosecutor, judge and public defender in Miami-Dade decided if an addict should be admitted to its new program. For their part, the defendants had to agree to be tested for drugs and seek treatment in private- or public-run facilities. The offenders were obligated to see a judge during each step in the year-long process, which included more counseling sessions and more drug screenings.


Attorney David Scott Markus was one of the first "graduates" of the Miami-Dade drug court. Arrested in 1993 on a number of charges, including drug possession and leaving the scene of an accident, Markus, a well-known defense lawyer, was more than embarrassed and humbled. His attorney asked if the case could be assigned to the drug court.

"It wasn't an arrest," Markus says, "it was a rescue."

Markus, who was 36 at the time, had the good fortune to face Judge Stanley Goldstein, a tough no-nonsense jurist who took an interest in his case. "I knew Judge Goldstein as a defense attorney," Markus says. "He said, 'I want to help you, but I'll put you in jail if you use.' I knew he meant business. It turned out the guy had a big heart."

From that point on Markus committed himself to the program, the threat of jail hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles. In the beginning, the drug court urine tested him five times a week. If he failed, Judge Goldstein could have tossed Markus in jail for a few days. Markus also had to participate in 12-step meetings and counseling sessions. The more days he stayed clean, the less he was drug tested. Markus started the program as a hopeless drug addict but ultimately kicked his habit and became more successful as an attorney, helping to steer many of his own clients to the Miami-Dade drug court.

Other municipalities began to hear stories of the Miami-Dade drug court's success and decided to set up their own systems. Today, there are more than 3,000 drug courts in the United States. Some are solely for adults, others are for drivers charged with D.W.I., while others focus on veterans or juveniles [source: U.S. Department of Justice].


Drug Courts: Who Gets to Participate?

Las Vegas drug court
In 2010, Paris Hilton pleaded guilty to drug possession and obstructing an officer after her arrest for cocaine possession in Las Vegas. She was required to complete a drug abuse program in order to avoid jail and a felony conviction. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Since drug courts are administered by local municipalities and states, criteria for who participates varies. Generally speaking, according to Chris Deutsch, spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, referrals to the drug court can come from the prosecutor, defense attorney and even the arresting officer.

Some drug courts limit participation based on the severity of the person's criminal history, while other courts allow only defendants charged with non-violent misdemeanors to participate. Still some drug courts have no limits at all regardless of a defendant's prior criminal history. For some courts, those arrested on both drug and non-drug charges (with the exception of violent felonies) are able to take advantage of the court, while some courts refuse to accept defendants charged with drug dealing [source: Urban Institute].


Many drug courts require defendants to sign contracts agreeing to the program's rules, and other courts insist clients agree to alternative sentences if the defendants fail to comply with the court's dictates. Unlike the traditional criminal court system, those who participate in drug courts are dealt with rather quickly, including drug treatment within days after an arrest [source: Urban Institute].

Depending on what the court directs, some defendants must enter inpatient treatment, while others are allowed to seek treatment as outpatients. Deutsch says every case is different and the courts do not want to "over resource" a client by providing them with services they might not need. On the other hand, the courts want to provide those defendants with all the services they do need to get clean.

And because getting clean and off drugs is the goal, breaking the rules is likely, especially failing drug tests. If a defendant does fail a test, they can be sanctioned by the court. Usually it is the judge who doles out the penalties, while some courts rely on program staff. Those who follow the rules are rewarded for such things as staying sober for one to three months, completing their education, finding a job and completing the requirements of a treatment program [source: Urban Institute]. The ultimate sanction, of course, is getting booted from the drug court for multiple violations and then going to jail.

"Jail should be used sparingly, but not as a response to relapse, but to non-compliance," Deutsch says.

Some drug courts demand that the defendants plead guilty before they are admitted. After they successfully complete the program a judge can defer that person's sentence. If that is the case, the judge can toss out the client's guilty plea and dismiss the case. If a judge does not defer the sentence, the person is placed on probation until they graduate. Some courts, however, do not dismiss charges, while others reduce charges. It can take as long as two years for a client to graduate the program, while some can do it within 12 months [source: Urban Institute].


How Drug Courts Differ from Other Courts

teen court advocate
Deborah King, daughter of Don King, works regularly with teens on substance abuse at the Miami-Dade Economic Advocacy Trust at Miami-Dade County Teen Court. Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The way drug courts do business has changed dramatically since the first courts opened in the 1990s. In most municipalities, judges rotate between civil and criminal court. However, generally speaking, judges request to be assigned to drug courts — the only courts in the United States where he or she is permitted to talk directly to defendants.

Drug court judges are more counselor than court officer; more nurturer than judicial referee. They get to know the defendants and the circumstances that causes their addictions. When a defendant is prosecuted in criminal courts, they can face different judges each time they appear. Not so in a drug court. Usually, the defendant faces the same judge every time he or she appears in court, which can be as often as every four weeks.


As the process unfolds, the judge dives into the defendant's history hoping to understand the root of his problems. Miami-Dade's Markus says a judge can quickly tell whether the defendant is sincere in seeking help or just trying to scam the system to stay out of jail.

"There are a lot of people [defendants] who are full of crap," Markus says. "The judge can weed them out. The judge gets to know the person."

Moreover, Markus says, it takes a special kind of judge to sit on a drug court. Most stay for years. In the entire history of the Miami-Dade Drug Court, Markus says, only four judges have presided. Plus, the criminal court system is designed to be adversarial, but in the drug court, the judges, court staff, prosecutors and defense attorney all work as a therapeutic team helping defendants find mental health counseling, employment, educational programs, as well as treatment for their addictions.

If a defendant has been the victim of domestic abuse, for instance, the court will steer them to the right agency. They'll also help a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. If a defendant is a veteran, the court will make sure the U.S. government provides him or her with the medical and mental health benefits they've earned.

"They're all rooting for you to succeed," Markus says. "It's a collaborative effort, not an adversarial process. The prosecutor's goal is not to screw people who fail. There's a lot of stability and consistency. People [prosecutors] ask to be assigned to the court."


Do Drug Courts Work?

veterans court drug court
Judge Robert Russell, creator of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, shakes hands with veteran Justin Smith who has succeeded in his court. The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court is a hybrid drug and mental health treatment court. Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Research shows that drug courts work, not only for the participant but for society at large. "There's a lot of research on drug courts," the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Deutsch says. "What we now know is that drug courts do work. [They] not only reduce crime, but recidivism."

Most people in prison have substance abuse problems. In fact, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, while nearly 50 percent of the nation's prison population is clinically addicted. Once they get out of jail the numbers are even more mind-blowing — 60 to 80 percent of drug abusers commit new crimes. The numbers also suggest that treatment by itself does not work. Unless a judge holds them accountable by holding the "hammer" of jail over their heads as Markus puts it, 60 to 80 percent of inmates who seek drug treatment drop out of the program early [source: National Association of Drug Court Professionals].


Drug courts reverse all these numbers, providing clients a mélange of treatment and other services to help them stay clean. The courts also hold offenders accountable for their actions. Consider these statistics compiled by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals:

  • Drug courts reduce crime as much as 35 percent compared to alternatives.
  • For 2,000 graduates from more than 90 drug courts, the average recidivism rate in the first year after leaving the program was only 16 percent, and 27 percent after the second year, which is substantially lower than the recidivism rates for those on conventional probation.
  • Parents in Family Drug Courts are more likely to go to treatment and complete it than if they did not participate in a drug court. As a result, their children spend less time in foster care and families are more likely to be reunited.

To give an indication of the success of drug courts, one study from the National Institute of Justice determined that the felony re-arrest rate of in Escambia County, Florida was lower by 18 percent, and 15 percent in Jackson County, Missouri in two years beginning in 1999. Both counties began their drug court in 1993, and only accepted first-time drug offenders, but now accept drug offenders and non-drug offenders who have substance abuse problems.

And a second study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, found on average, 52 percent of drug court participants in nine jurisdictions in California graduate, while nine other courts had graduation rates of more than 65 percent [source: Carey, et. al].

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals' Deutsch says the drug courts work exceedingly well for high-risk individuals, as well as defendants with a long criminal drug histories who have not done well in community-based treatment situations. "These are people who have lost everything ... they're really in rough shape," he says.

And drug courts save budget-strapped municipalities money. They reduce the prison population, saving the states money. Drug courts improve employment opportunities (resulting in increased tax revenue) and bind families together.

The average cost savings per client is roughly $6,000, Deutsch says. To put it more bluntly, he says, $27 in taxpayer money is saved due to positive impacts on the criminal justice system for every $1 of investment. In California, on average, the return was $3.50 for every $1 the taxpayers invested on the drug courts [source: Carey, et. al].

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for the decriminalization of drugs, says drug courts are not the answer to a health-centered approach for several reasons. First, the Drug Policy Alliance says that drug courts are costly and no more effective than voluntary treatment. And drug courts don't reduce criminal justice involvement or improve public safety, and participants are actually worse off for cooperating. "For these reasons, drug courts should be reserved only for people charged with more serious (non-drug) offenses but whose behavior was motivated by an underlying drug problem. Drug courts should be forbidden from focusing, as they do now, on people found using or possessing small amounts of drugs — who can be better served outside of the criminal justice system" [source: Drug Policy Alliance].

However, despite groups like Drug Policy Alliance advocating against drug courts, they don't seem to be going anywhere. In fact, their success has spawned other alternative courts across the country, including DUI courts and veterans courts, that operate in similar fashions [source: Frailing].


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Drug Courts Work

As a journalist for many years, I covered town courts, state courts, county courts, city courts and federal courts. I was often stuck by the number of defendants with substance abuse problems. In one rather grizzly case, two brothers killed a friend for a fistful of dollars so they could buy drugs. In researching this story, I was amazed by how well drug courts combat drug addiction, while saving taxpayers money, which I suspect, are two reasons drug courts have bipartisan support across the political spectrum.

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More Great Links

  • Carey, Shannon M., Ph.D., et. al. "California Drug Courts: Outcomes Cost and Promising Practices: An overview of Phase II in a Statewide Study." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. "Nov. 3, 2006. (March 11, 2018).
  • Drug Policy Alliance. Moving Away from Drug Courts: Toward a Health Centered Approach to Drug Use. May 2014. (March 27, 2018).
  • Frailing, Kelly. Scholars Strategy Network. "The Achievements of Specialty Courts in the United States." April 2016. (March 27, 2018).
  • National Association of Drug Court Professionals. "The Facts on Drugs and Crime in America." (March 10, 2018).
  • National Association of Drug Court Professionals. "Historic Funding for Treatment Courts." (March 23, 2018). March 27, 2018
  • National Center for State Courts. "Opioids and the Courts News." Feb. 7, 2018. (March 9, 2018).
  • National Criminal Justice Service. "Drug Courts - Grants and Funding." March 27, 2018.
  • National Institute of Justice. "Evaluating Treatment Drug Courts In Kansas City, Missouri and Pensacola, Florida: Final Reports for Phase I and Phase II." March, 2002. (March 11, 2018).
  • The Economist. "America's first opioid court is working well." Oct. 19, 2017. (March 8, 2018).
  • Urban Institute. "The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation: The Drug Court Experience." Nov. 2011. (March 9, 2018).
  • Westervelt, Eric. "To Save Opioid Addicts, This Experimental Court is Ditching the Delays." Oct. 5, 2017. (March 8, 2018).
  • Williams, Timothy. "This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive." The New York Times. Jan. 3, 2018. (March 8, 2018).
  • "Crisis Court. An Inside Look." Sept. 14, 2017. (March 8, 2018).