How Drug Courts Work

How Drug Courts Differ from Other Courts

teen court advocate 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."