How Drug Courts Work

History of Drug Courts

drug court Miami-Dade 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].