How Drug Courts Work

Do Drug Courts Work?

veterans court drug court 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].

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).