By Carson Fox and West Huddleston
In the late 1980s, many of the courts in the United States were overwhelmed. A dramatic increase in arrests for drug and drug-involved cases, along with mandatory minimum sentences for the possession and distribution of drugs, especially crack cocaine, had led to overflowing jails and prison populations. In Miami, Florida, and other major metropolitan areas, the problem was particularly daunting. In 1989, in an effort to stem the tide of drug-involved cases, the court system in Miami began taking offenders into an intensive drug treatment program designed as an alternative to incarceration. The program was called drug court. By 1994, there were 12 drug courts in the United States. Today, there are over 1,200.
Drug courts blend the oversight of the court system with the therapeutic capabilities of drug treatment. In this "marriage" of services, the defendant or participant (also referred to as the client) undergoes an intense regimen of drug treatment, case management, drug testing, and supervision, while reporting to regularly scheduled status hearings before a judge. A team of treatment and criminal justice professionals oversees the program, and reviews each participant's case before the regular court hearing.
Drug Court Team
The team usually consists of a judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, treatment provider, law enforcement officer, probation officer, case manager, and program coordinator. In team meetings, often called "staffings," the team discusses the participant's progress since the last court appearance. Team members make recommendations for sanctions or incentives, depending on the participant's compliance or noncompliance with program regulations.
Typically, drug courts demand abstinence from crime, alcohol, and drugs. Participants are also obligated to seek additional education or job training opportunities. Most drug court programs require the participant to remain under the court's supervision for at least one year. Other than intensive drug treatment and case management, the successful participant also receives a benefit from the criminal justice system. The participant may receive a lighter punishment, have his or her charges dismissed, or have his or her probation terminated early.
Drug court participation is voluntary. The participant has a choice, even if the alternative is prison. If a defendant chooses drug court, he or she must be deemed eligible before program admittance. The drug court team typically develops eligibility criteria, looking to any statutory guidelines of the state, along with the needs of the community. Some common issues considered in eligibility are: Is the defendant dependent on alcohol or drugs? Is the defendant a resident of the jurisdiction? Does the defendant have a victim; is restitution an issue; does the victim have any objections? Is the defendant a violent offender?
Eligibility is determined based on a legal and clinical screen. As the system of each state differs, and the drug court target populations differ, the method of program entry differs. Typically, the prosecutor will determine legal eligibility. If the defendant is entering drug court due to a probation violation, the probation agent may determine legal eligibility. Once the defendant is found legally eligible, treatment performs a clinical screen. In the clinical screen, a treatment professional interviews the drug court applicant and asks a series of questions. These questions are designed to determine what type of drug use problem, if any, the participant has. (A clinical screen is not to be confused with a clinical assessment, which begins with a much longer interview process, takes place after the participant has been accepted into the program, determines the necessary level of care in treatment, and is performed in an ongoing basis throughout the defendant's participation in drug court.)
Before entering drug court, the defendant reviews program requirements with his or her attorney, and will often also discuss these requirements with the program coordinator and the judge. Since drug courts exist for both felony and misdemeanor charges, and since some participants' status are pre-plea and some are post-plea, the legal standing of the participants varies. Some have faced formal indictment; some have not. Some may be facing prison time; some may not. If a defendant is found eligible for drug court, and that defendant agrees to participate, then he or she must agree to comply with all program rules and regulations. If the defendant enters the program pre-plea, this compliance may be made a condition of bond (Bond is a usually a monetary amount set soon after an individual is arrested, the purpose of which is to assure the defendant's appearance in court. However, bond also can be personal recognizance, where no monetary amount exists. Once a defendant posts bond, he or she is released, but remains under the jurisdiction of the court and any special conditions of the bond order.); if the defendant enters the program post-plea, the compliance may be a condition of probation.
Drug courts began as a grass-roots effort, when local jurisdictions looking for alternatives to going through the regular court system, turned to drug courts to deal with their drug-addicted offenders.
In the traditional approach to such offenders, many of the defendants received probation or prison sentences, often without the availability of treatment. If treatment was available, and the court ordered treatment as a part of the sentence, no formal partnership existed between the court, case management, treatment, and supervision. If offenders did not comply with treatment conditions or tested positive for drugs, there was no system of sanctions and incentives designed to keep the offender engaged in treatment. Often the reaction to noncompliance was a discharge from treatment. Offenders on probation would reappear before a judge for a revocation hearing, where they would potentially face the prison time that had been suspended at their sentencing. Offenders expelled from treatment programs in the prison system would find themselves back in the prison population.
As such, the traditional system created a "revolving door" of justice. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were accustomed to seeing the same defendants month after month returning to court, many for property offenses, fueled by their drug dependency. Without treatment, the offender continued in active addiction, and continued to victimize others to fuel their addiction.
Framework for Drug Courts
Until the mid-1990s, although many drug court programs had similarities, no standards existed. In 1996, a group of practitioners came together with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. This group was organized to identify the basic standards for drug courts. They met for over a year, and in 1997, the Justice Department published Defining Drug Courts: The Key Components, which outlines 10 key components in a framework for drug courts.
The first key component of the framework explains a drug court's integration of alcohol and drug treatment services with the justice system. As part of this integration, the program includes a cross-disciplinary team as discussed above. Program officials may also develop a steering committee, which is sometimes called a resource committee or advisory board. This committee helps the program establish broad community support. The committee may include each member of the drug court team along with representatives from mental health treatment, job training services, educational services, the local school system, local businesses, local government, the religious community, and other interested citizens. This committee may make recommendations regarding policies and procedures, raise funds for the program, and assist the program with operations and special projects, such as program graduations.
The second key component describes drug courts as non-adversarial. While under the traditional justice system, the prosecutor and defense attorney act as adversaries, with the prosecutor representing the best interests of the state, and the defense attorney representing the best interests of the client, in drug court these roles lack their traditional adversarial component. The prosecutor and defense attorney work on the drug court team-both focused on the participant's recovery. Both make recommendations to the judge, along with the other team members, for sanctions and/or incentives, to motivate behavior change in the participant.
Under the third key component, drug courts attempt to identify participants early in the criminal justice system and place them into treatment. Research has shown that people entering drug treatment are more successful if the treatment episode is precipitated by a moment of crisis -- an arrest or violation of probation hearing, for example. Once the offender is identified as eligible, he or she is quickly placed into treatment and under the supervision of the court.
The fourth key component discusses the need for a continuum of treatment and rehabilitation services in drug court. In addition to drug treatment, drug courts offer mental health counseling, job training, continuing education, health services, and any other necessary services in the community. Naturally, some communities have more services than others, but the steering committee can identify resources and help to bridge any existing gaps in needed services.
Under the fifth key component, the participants are monitored regularly through alcohol and drug testing. Testing should be random, observed, and often. Treatment professionals or law enforcement officials typically perform the tests. In many drug court evaluations, participants cite drug testing as a critical component in their recovery.
The sixth key component stresses the coordinated strategy which governs drug court responses to participants' behavior. The regular court meetings between the judge and participant, following the staffing with the drug court team, gives the team the opportunity to respond to the participants' compliance or noncompliance with immediate sanctions and incentives. These responses are designed to motivate behavior change in the participants, and are typically not designed to be punitive. Responses may also include treatment, which does not fall into the category of sanctions or incentives, but are the results of a participant's progress, such as increasing or decreasing the level of care.
Ongoing judicial interaction with the judge is deemed essential in component seven. Like drug testing, this interaction is also often cited by drug court participants as important to their success. Since the judge sees the participant regularly for several months, the judge and participant often develop a "therapeutic" relationship not seen in regular court settings.
The eighth component underscores the need for monitoring and evaluation of the drug court to measure program success. No matter how successful drug court programs may be, without good data collection and a strong evaluation component, that success will only be apparent through anecdotal evidence. Programs should collect a baseline of information on participants about their drug and alcohol treatment, health care, demographics, criminal history, and current charges. Team members should set clear goals and objectives for the drug court, and then structure an evaluation to measure the achievement of those goals. Both the drug court team and those who provide funds and services to the drug court will want to see proof of the program's efficacy.
The ninth component stresses the need for continuing interdisciplinary education. Since drug courts represent a fundamental change in the criminal justice and treatment systems, all team members need to understand the basics of each team member's role. Each team member must continue receiving education in the most current science-based practices. Drug courts should foster such educational opportunities, encourage team members to attend continuing education training, and provide training, when possible, for new and experienced team members.
Under the tenth key component, the drug court builds partnerships in the community, which enhance program effectiveness and generate local support. Many of these partnerships are demonstrated in the creation of the drug court steering committee. The organizations on the steering committee become partners in the drug court's success. Drug courts can also partner with the community by having participants perform community service, which can be a general program requirement, or reserved as a sanction. The committee also assists the program staff to better organize existing community resources. The members of the steering committee typically represent the agencies or entities that provide the "wrap around" services needed by drug court participants.
Compliance with the 10 key components is necessary to receive federal funding. Many state and local funding sources also rely heavily on these components, and will require that applicants outline how their program complies.
Although drug courts have never been a federally mandated program, due to their large growth in the 1990s, the Drug Court Programs Office was created in the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). (The Drug Courts Program Office has since been absorbed into the OJP.) Drug courts at the local level are now assisted through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), also located in the Justice Department.
Through BJA, the DOJ provides seed money for drug court planning, along with limited funding for implementation and enhancement. Federal funding for drug courts is available from several sources, including drug court discretionary grants available through the cooperation of BJA and the
Office of National Drug Control Policy, under the auspices of the Executive Office of the President; the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant program; the Edward Byrne Memorial grants; the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment; and The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, but most drug courts operate on a combination of federal, state, and local funds. Some drug courts charge participants a fee and some receive financial assistance from tax-exempt organizations founded to support the programs (many of these are started by steering committees). To be successful, however, drug courts must also look to existing local resources, and organize those resources to avoid duplication of services.
Drug courts have shown such tremendous success that they now exist in almost every metropolitan area of the United States. Indeed, every U.S. state and territory has a drug court. While this article discusses drug courts in the context of the adult criminal justice system, the drug court model also has been applied to juveniles, to parents at risk for losing custody of their children due to drug abuse, to offenders charged for driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, to offenders with mental health issues (regulating medications and case management), and to parolees in re-entry courts (monitoring parolees with drug addictions upon release into the community). In some cities, such as San Diego, California, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, drug court systems exist, where the underlying cause of the offender's charge can result in that offender being placed in one of a variety of court-supervised programs-all following a drug court-type model.
Most drug court programs target non-violent offenders. These offenders are placed in programs, which may take a variety of forms:
- Diversion (charges are held until program completion, and upon successful completion, they are dismissed);
- Probation (a participant pleads guilty and is placed on probation with the successful completion of drug court a special condition of drug court); and
- Probation revocation (a participant already on probation and in violation for reasons caused by drug addiction continues on probation and is placed in drug court).
Drug courts deal with charges ranging from drug possession to property crimes. Since many drug addicts steal to finance their drug habit, drug courts also target these drug-driven property crimes. If a drug court participant has committed a crime that involves a victim, such as in a theft case, the program typically requires restitution.
Drug courts use coercion to keep participants engaged in treatment. The most recent science-based literature on drug and alcohol treatment shows that coerced treatment clients actually perform better than those entering voluntarily. Drug court, through its system of sanctions and incentives and its regular court hearings, provides a constant level of coercion to help the participant remain engaged in treatment. Drug court increases retention rates in treatment, and, therefore, increases success rates of those needing treatment over standard voluntary treatment methods.
In evaluation after evaluation, drug courts show high levels of retention in treatment. Whereas many alcohol and drug treatment programs see 80-90 percent attrition rates, many drug courts boast a 30 percent attrition rate. Furthermore, participants who graduate from drug courts see large reductions in their recidivism rates, sometimes by 90 percent. Drug court evaluations also show these programs to be much more cost-effective than the traditional criminal justice system. Two cost-benefit studies-one in Oregon and one in Texas-showed that the drug court saved taxpayers between $9 and $10 for each dollar spent.
Drug courts began as a grass-roots effort, and they remain so today. From Miami to San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro, communities implement drug courts to deal with their local issues. Different jurisdictions must confront different drugs of choice, different criminal justice systems, and different available resources.
For years, drug court professionals have provided assistance and training to each other and those interested in the drug court concept. This assistance and training occurs through the efforts and support of several organizations. For instance, drug court professionals from the United States have traveled to Brazil, Great Britain, Australia, Bermuda, and Barbados to share the experiences of U.S. drug courts.
National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), representing thousands of drug court practitioners in the United States, was founded in 1994, and is located in Alexandria, Virginia. The research, scholarship, and training arm of NADCP, the National Drug Court Institute (NDCI), was founded in 1997. NDCI is supported by the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, which falls under the auspices of the Executive Office of the President, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice. NDCI provides over 70 drug court training events each year, throughout the United States and around the world.
NDCI worked closely with the U.S. Department of State in 2002, facilitating a tour of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Treatment Courts for government representatives from England, Finland, Greece, Austria, Spain, and Italy, and participating in a video conference with several government representatives from Thailand. NADCP and NDCI are also associated with the International Association of Drug Court Professionals (IADCP).
Carson Fox is a National Drug Court Institute fellow, and former solicitor and drug court administrator for the state of South Carolina.
West Huddleston is the director of the National Drug Court Institute .