Looking at a Decade of Drug Courts

Prepared by the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project
A Program of the Drug Courts Program Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice

The OJP Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project (DCCTAP) at American University, sponsored by the Drug Courts Program Office of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, compiles operational and evaluative information on adult, juvenile and family drug court programs throughout the United States. Summary reports of drug court activities are published and updated periodically by the DCCTAP, reflecting current developments, emerging issues, experiences reported by local drug court officials, and observations of staff during the course of providing technical assistance to local jurisdictions This report updates the Summary Assessment of the Drug Court Experience published in 1995 - 97 and reflects information provided by drug courts operating throughout the U.S. as of June 1998.

What began in 1989 as an experiment by the Dade County Circuit Court to call upon the authority of a sitting judge to devise -- and proatively oversee -- an intensive, community-based, treatment, rehabilitation, and supervision program for felony drug defendants in an effort to halt rapidly increasing recidivism rates, has become a national movement during the decade that has followed. –Drug Court” activity is now underway in 48 of the 50 states as well as in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, a number of Native American Tribal Courts, and one federal district court.

The appeal of the drug court lies in many sectors: more effective supervision of offenders in the community; more credibility to the law enforcement function (arrests of drug offenders are, indeed, taken seriously, even by court systems that are inundated with cases); greater accountability of defendants for complying with conditions of release and/or probation; greater coordination and accountability of public services provided, including reducing duplication of services and costs to the taxpayer; and more efficiency for the court system by removing a class of cases that places significant resource demands for processing, both initially as well as with probation violations and new offenses that otherwise would undoubtedly occur. These benefits, dramatic as they may be, do not, however, explain the tremendous personal impact that drug courts have on all who have been involved with them -- even the casual observer of a drug court session.

What has made the drug court movement so powerful and infectious is its human element. Close to 100,000 drug dependent offenders have entered drug court programs since their inception and over 70% are either still enrolled or have graduated -- more than double the rate of. traditional treatment program retention rates. Drug court participants reflect all segments of the community. Approximately two-thirds are parents of minor children. Approximately 15% are veterans. Men participate at twice the rate of women although the percent of female participants is rising. Most drug court participants have been using drugs for many, many years; many are polydrug users. Most have never been exposed to treatment previously although a large majority have already served jail or prison time for drug related offenses.

Unlike traditional treatment programs, becoming –clean and sober” is only the first step toward drug court graduation. Almost all drug courts require participants (after they have become clean and sober) to obtain a GED, maintain employment, be current in all financial obligations, including drug court fees and child support payments, if applicable, and to have a sponsor in the community. Many programs also require participants to perform community service hours -- to give back to the community that is supporting them through the drug court program. One drug court requires prospective graduates to prepare a two year –life plan” following drug court graduation for discussion with a community board to assure the court that the participant has developed the –tools” to lead a drug-free and crime-free life.

The original goals for drug courts -- reductions in recidivism and drug usage -- are being achieved, with recidivism rates substantially reduced for graduates annd, to a lesser but significant degree, for participants who do not graduate as well. Drug usage rates for defendants while they are participating in the drug court, measured by the frequent, random urinalyses required of all participants, are also substantially reduced, generally to well under 10%, dramatically below that observed for nondrug court offenders.

The –outcomes” drug courts are achieving go far beyond these original goals, however: the birth of over 500 drug free babies to drug court participants; the reunification of hundreds of families, as parents regain or are able to retain custody of their children; education and vocational training and job placements for participants, to name a few. Most significantly, many of the judges who have served as the –drug court” judge have requested an extension of their assignment, and many have taken on the drug court duty in addition to their other docket responsibilities.

The following sections of this publication highlight the background of the drug court –movement”, the major areas in which drug courts differ from traditional adjudication processes, and salient accomplishments that have been achieved to date.


Since the mid-1980's, many state and local criminal justice systems have been inundated with felony drug cases. Court dockets became overloaded with drug cases and drug-involved offenders, leaving fewer resources available to adjudicate serious, violent felonies. During this same period, it became increasingly clear that: (1) incarceration in and of itself does little to break the cycle of illegal drug use and crime, and offenders sentenced to incarceration for substance related offenses exhibit a high rate of recidivism once they are released; and (2) drug abuse treatment is demonstrably effective in reducing both drug addiction and drug-related crime if participants remain in treatment for an adequate period of time.

In the early 1990's, a number of jurisdictions began to rethink their approach to handling defendants charged with drug and drug-related offenses and explored ways to adapt the –drug court” concept, introduced by Dade County in 1989. Defendants targeted for the "drug court" have generally been non-violent offenders whose current involvement with the criminal justice system is due, primarily, to their substance addiction. Defendants eligible for the drug court are identified as soon as possible after arrest and, if accepted, are referred immediately to a multi phased out-patient treatment program entailing multiple weekly (often daily) contacts with the treatment provider for counseling, therapy and education; frequent urinalysis (usually at least weekly), frequent status hearings before the drug court judge (bi-weekly or more often at first); and a rehabilitation program entailing vocational, educational, family, medical, and other support services.

To date, drug court programs operate in 39 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and one federal district, with programs planned or about to be implemented in Guam and nine additional states, including several Native American Tribal Courts. Almost 300 programs have been implemented, with at least 175 more program about to start or being planned. In addition, since 1995, 14 states have either enacted or have under consideration legislation dealing with the establishment of or funding for drug courts, and one state has implemented a statewide drug court program.

Initially, most drug courts focussed on first offenders but increasingly, jurisdictions are targeting more serious offenders for several reasons: (1) recognition of the apparent futility of traditional probation and/or incarceration sentences which have already been imposed on many of these defendants and have failed to prevent continued drug use and criminal activity; and (2) a policy decision to use the limited resources available to the drug court for persons with serious substance addiction problems, rather than those with less severe problems who might be served through other programs.

Effectiveness of Drug Court Approach Compared with Traditional Case Disposition Process
Reductions in Drug Use

Traditional Adjudication Process

Drug Use Forecasting (DUF) Data collected on defendants in 23 cities indicates that 51% to 83% of arrested males and 41% to 84% of arrested females were under the influence of at least one illicit drug at the time of arrest. Defendants convicted of drug offenses are either sentenced to a period of incarceration or referred for probation supervision, with few jurisdictions requiring frequent drug testing to monitor drug use after conviction. Those which do, generally have significant drug usage rates but lack the capacity to promptly respond when a defendant has tested positive. Few jails or prisons provide any comprehensive treatment services for inmates and none provide long-term rehabilitation support once the defendant is released. In jurisdictions which require, as a condition of probation, completion of a treatment program, there is generally no monitoring of whether defendants who complete such programs actually cease or reduce their use of drugs. This situation, coupled with available recidivism data (see below), has led many justice system officials to conclude that the traditional case disposition process lacks the capacity to bring about any significant reduction in drug usage by persons convicted of drug offenses.

Drug Court Experience

Because drug court programs test defendants for drug use regularly (usually at least weekly), information regarding drug use by defendants under drug court supervision is available and known to the court on an on-going basis, and is responded to with appropriate sanctions. Consequently, the drug use of defendants participating in drug court programs is substantially reduced and significantly lower than that reported for nondrug court defendants and,, for participants who graduate from the programs (ranging from 50% - 65%), eliminated altogether. Recidivism among graduates also appears to be very low. (see below)

Reductions in Recidivism
Traditional Adjudication Process

Most criminal justice system professionals estimate that at least 45% of defendants convicted of drug possession will recidivate with a similar offense within two to three years. The more frequently a defendant has been arrested for a drug offense, the more likely he or she is to recidivate. A high percentage of defendants convicted of drug possession are also arrested for property offenses during the period they are using illicit substances, and a substantial percentage have either committed violent offenses or are considered likely to do so, particularly as their addictions progress. Defendants in drug court programs report they spent at least $ 50 per day on drugs before entering the drug court and many report spending considerably more. The money to maintain their drug habits was derived from theft and other criminal activity, whether reported or not.

Drug Court Experience

In comparison, drug court programs are experiencing a significant reduction in recidivism among participants. Depending upon the characteristics of the population targeted and the degree of social dysfunction (e.g., employment status, family situation, medical condition, etc.) they reflect, recidivism among all drug court participants has ranged between 5% to 28% and less than 4% for graduates. The drastic reduction in drug use by drug court participants, and the consequent criminal activity associated with drug use, is confirmed by urinalysis reports for drug court defendants, usually well over 90% negative.

Intensive Supervision Provided Where Little Existed Before
Traditional Adjudication Process

Under the traditional adjudication process, supervision of defendants released pretrial usually consists of a weekly call-in and periodic reporting to a pretrial service agency during the pretrial period (usually 60 - 120 or more days following arrest); after conviction, supervision usually consists of monthly reporting to a probation officer. Urinalysis is generally conducted only periodically, and treatment services provided only if available. The court's involvement occurs only when probation violations are reported -- generally when new crimes are committed. Benchwarrants may be issued for defendants who fail to appear for court hearings,, but their actual execution (e.g. the defendantês arrest) may not occur for months and often is triggered only by a new arrest.

Drug Court Process

Defendant supervision and monitoring -- as well as treatment services -- in all of the drug court programs are significantly more immediate and intensive than woulld have been provided to the typical drug court defendant prior to the program. Drug court defendants come under the court's supervision very shortly after arrest, and throughout a typical 12-15 month period, are required to attend treatment sessions, undergo frequent and random urinalysis, and appear before the drug court judge on a regular and frequent basis. Almost all of the drug courts have instituted procedures for immediate execution of bench warrants (often within hours) for defendants who fail to appear at any court hearing.

Capacity to Promptly Deal with Relapse and Its Consequences
Traditional Adjudication Process

It is particularly common for defendants on probation for drug offenses to fail to comply with probation conditions entailing attendance at treatment programs or abstaining from drug use. Frequently, their failure to comply is evidenced by a new arrest for a drug or drug-related offense, generally becoming known to the justice system months after the defendant's drug use has resumed, if it ever ceased in the first place. This violation hearing, which generally results in imposition of the original sentence suspended when the defendant was placed on probation, and (2) conviction for the new offense, often resulting in an additional sentence of incarceration. It is common for this cycle to continue indefinitely once the defendant is released, with an enhanced incarceration sentence imposed each time to reflect the defendant's lengthening criminal history. At least 40% of offenders incarcerated in 1995 were imprisoned for drug or drug related offenses and over 60% of the correctional population had substance abuse problems.

Drug Court Experience

Recognizing that substance addiction is a chronic and recurring disorder, the drug court program maintains continuous supervision over the recovery process of each participant, through frequent court status hearings, urinalysis, and reports from the treatment providers to the supervising judge. Drug usage or failures to comply with other conditions of the drug court program are detected and responded to promptly. Immediate responses -- ranging from enhanced treatment services, more frequent urinalysis (daily, if necessary), imposition of community service rrequirements, and "shock" incarceration -- are some of the options drug court judges use to respond to program noncompliance. In appropriate situations, particularly where public safety is at issue or participants willfully fail to comply with program conditions, they are terminated from the drug court and referred for traditional adjudication, with standard penalties applied. Data reported by the 200 oldest drug courts indicates that drug use is being reduced for most participants, not simply drug court graduates.

Capability to Integrate Drug Treatment with Other Rehabilitation Services to Promote Long-term Recovery
Traditional Adjudication Process

Although there are strong correlations between drug abuse and other attributes of social dysfunction exhibited by drug users, such as poor reading skills, dysfunctional family relationships, low self esteem, etc., most courts do not address these problems when sentencing drug-using offenders. At best, they refer them to a treatment program and/or a special skills class, with no regular monitoring of their participation or its results, absent a violation of probation filed by the probation officer. (see above).

Drug Court Experience

In contrast, a fundamental premise of the drug court approach is that cessation of drug abuse requires not only well-structured treatment services but coordinated and comprehensive programs of other rehabilitation services to address the underlying personal problems of the drug user, and promote his or her long-term re-entry into society. While sobriety is a primary objective of the drug court program, no participant can successfully complete the program without also addressing needs relating to his\her long-term rehabilitation. As noted earlier, in addition to sobriety, most drug courts require participants to obtain a high school or GED certificate; obtain and/or maintain employment; and develop mentor relationships within the community to sustain them after they leave the drug court program.

Summary Results of the Drug Court Experience: The First decade
Programs Report High Participant Retention Rates

Despite their rigorous requirements, drug court programs are retaining a significant percentage of the defendants enrolled and, consequently, having a more significant impact on participants' lives than traditional pretrial and/or probation supervision. Data from the 200 oldest drug courts (and confirmed by the 1997 U.S. General Accounting Office study) reflect an average retention rate of over 70% (the total of graduates plus active participants), despite the difficult populations which most programs are targeting. These retention rates can be contrasted with significantly lower rates generally acknowledged for traditional drug treatment programs dealing with criminal defendants, with slightly higher rates for individuals not involved with the criminal justice process. It also has been noted that, in many cases, defendants may be terminated from a drug court program because they fail to meet the stringent requirements imposed by the court but have, nevertheless, made significant progress in terms of reducing drug use, and improving their employment status, educational development, and family relationships, and eventually succeed in subsequent treatment programs in which they enroll.

Nature and Extent of Addiction Among Drug Court Participants Varies Widely But Generally Tends to Be Severe

Most drug court participants, even first offenders, appear to have significant histories of substance addiction, frequently 15 or more years. Based on information provided by the 200 oldest drug courts, the primary drug used most frequently by drug court participants is crack/cocaine, although many are polydrug users. Sixty percent of the drug courts also reported heroin use among participants and over one-half report methamphetamine addiction, notably in the central and eastern regions of the country as well as the west where it had previously appeared to be concentrated. Marijuana and alcohol use, in conjunction with other substances, was also reported by most of the programs. Increasing prevalence of the abuse of prescription drugs and, among juveniles, toxic inhalants is also being reported.

Participants Note Judgesê Supervision, Coupled with Drug Court Treatment Services and Strict Monitoring, is Key to Their Success

Responses from two recent surveys of 400 drug court participants in the final phases of participation in more than 50 different programs indicated that the close supervision -- and encouragement -- provided by the drug court judge, coupled with the programs' intensive treatment and rehabilitation seervices and on-going monitoring, were the critical factors that promoted their success in the program. Over one-fourth of the respondents had been in at least one prior treatment program during the previous three years which they had left unsuccessfully.

Cost Effectiveness of Drug Court Programs

The average cost for the treatment component of a drug court program ranges between $1,200 and $3,000 per participant, depending upon the range of services provided. Savings in jail bed days alone have been estimated to be at least $5,000 per defendant -- which does not factor in the value of the added capability (see below) to incarcerate the more serious offenders which manyy jurisdictions are also deriving from these programs. Similarly, prosecutors are reporting that the drug court programs have reduced police overtime and other witness costs, as well as grand jury expenses for those jurisdictions with an indictment process, that would otherwise be required if these cases proceeded in the traditional manner. Most programs also report that a substantial percentage of participants who came into the program unemployed and on public assistance have become employed while in the program and are now self-supporting. In addition, many participants who are employed at the time of program entry are able to maintain their employment, despite their arrest, because of their program participation.

Benefits for Families and Children

Approximately two-thirds of the drug court participants are parents of minor children. Many of these parents have lost custody or are in danger of losing custody of their children because of their drug use. Drug court participation has resulted in many of these litigantsê retaining or regaining custody upon completing the drug. court. Over 500 drug-free babies have been reported born to female drug court participants while enrolled in drug court programs, thus obviating the substantial medical and social services costs (estimated at a minimum of $250,000 per baby) required to care for a drug-addicted infant, let alone the societal impact that results. Almost all drug courts provide family counseling and at least half provide aid with housing, food and clothing. Most also provide day care while participants attend treatment.

Criminal Justice Resources Freed Up for Violent and Other Serious Criminal Cases

In addition to cost savings, all components of the justice system are reporting that the drug court programs are enabling their agencies to more efficiently allocate criminal justice resources. Staff and services, which had heretofore been consumed by the less serious but time-consuming drug cases now targeted for drug court assignment, can be directed to more serious cases and to those offenders who present greater risks to community safety. Some prosecutors and indigent defense counsel report that the case preparation and court appearance time freed up by drug court programs is equivalent to one or more FTE attorney positions. The caseloads assumed by the drug court judges have also permitted docket time of other judges to be freed up and made available for other criminal matters as well as civil cases which, in many jurisdictions, have been relegated to secondary priority because of the drug caseload. In jurisdictions where jail space has been freed up, this space is now being used to house more serious offenders or to assure that they serve their full sentences.

Benefits to Prosecutors and Police

Prosecutors and police in many jurisdictions report that the drug court has significantly enhanced the credibility of the law enforcement function, provides their agencies with a more effective response to substance abuse, and is a significant alternative to the "revolving door" syndrome that has frequently resulted from the traditional case process. Defendants are no longer released back into the community -- and back using drugs -- shortly after arrest but, rather, placed in a rigorous, court supervised treatment program which caarries an important message to the community regarding the seriousness of illegal drug use. A recent poll of 318 police chiefs found that almost 60% advocate court-supervised treatment programs over other justice system options for drug users. In a number of jurisdictions, prosecutor and/or police agencies forts.

Highlights of National Drug Court Survey Findings

The 1997 Drug Court Survey Report, recently published by the Office of Justice Programs Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project at American University, provides a comparative profile of the 95 oldest drug court programs and includes operational information and comments from drug court judges, prosecutors, defender offices, law enforcement agencies, corrections departments, and treatment providers involved with the operation of the drug courts in their respective jurisdiction. The Survey report also includes comments from 256 participants in the final phases of 55 drug court programs in 23 different states and the District of Columbia.

The following are the most salient observations that emerge from the survey.

Program Growth

The number of drug courts, in both the planning and operational stage of development, has tripled during the past year. As of June 1, 1998, there were over 425 drug courts in the following stages of development:

drug courts operating for at least two years124
drug courts more recently implemented140
drug courts about to start2
drug courts being planned151
jurisdictions exploring the feasibility of a drug court program: 13

Drug courts are now operating or being planned in 48 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and two federal jurisdictions, including over 15 Native American Tribal Courts

Primary Services Being Provided
Physical and Mental Health Services

Drug courts are providing a range of physical and mental health services to participants as well as substance abuse treatment.

Almost all of the drug courts provide public health services, including HIV and TB screening and referral. Many programs have components to provide special services for dually diagnosed participants who have mental health problems, frequently as a result of their substance abuse. A number of drug courts routinely utilize the services of a physician and/or nurse.

Education, Job Training, Employment and Other Rehabilitation Services
The range of treatment and rehabilitation services being delivered by drug courts is expanding significantly.

Many of the early drug courts focussed primarily upon treatment services, with ancillary support for education and job training and placement. Most of these early drug courts, and their numerous progeny, have expanded their treatment and rehabilitation services significantly, recognizing the diversity of both treatment and other needs presented by the drug court populations. The expanded services being developed also reflect, in large part, the growing recognition that the drug court must treat not only the participant's addiction but the numerous associated personal problems most participants encounter -- physical, mental, housing, family, employment, self esteem, etc. -- if long-term sobriety and rehabilitation is to be achieeved and future criminal activity is to be significantly reduced. Many of the treatment program components, for example, are developing differentiated "tracks" to address the diversity of treatment needs of drug court clients. Special components are also being developed for specific ethnic and/or cultural groups represented, and other "special populations", including pregnant women, mothers, fathers, persons who have been sexually abused, and others.

Offenders Targeted

Drug courts are increasingly targeting the chronic recidivists as well as first offenders.

Many drug courts that began as pretrial diversion programs are expanding their focus to target individuals with more extensive criminal histories who require the rigid supervision and monitoring of the drug court and can benefit from the treatment and rehabilitation services provided. Less than 20% of presently operating drug courts restrict their services to first offenders. Although generally not eligible for diversion because of their more extensive criminal history, defendants with more extensive criminal histories are generally offered some incentive to complete the drug court, such as suspension of a jail or prison term or a reduction in the period of their probation.

Most programs report that participants are presenting moderate to severe crack/cocaine addiction with other drug usage and alcohol addiction as well.

Crack/cocaine addiction is prevalent among most drug court participants. In addition, approximately 75% of the drug courts report moderate to severe marijuana addiction and 53% of the programs report moderate to severe heroine addiction. Approximately one-third of the programs also report moderate to severe methamphetamine addiction presented by participants. Since the earlier Drug Court Survey in 1995, a notable prevalence of methamphetamine has been reported by programs in the central and eastern regions of the country as well as in the west where it had previously appeared to be concentrated. Two-thirds of the responding programs also report moderate to severe alcoholism presented by their clients. Approximately sixty percent of the programs routinely test for alcohol consumption as well as illegal drug use. All of the drug courts either prohibit or strongly discourage the use of alcohol by drug court participants. For juvenile drug courts, the most prevalent drugs reported had, until recently, been alcohol and marijuana. However increasing prevalence of crack/cocaine, methamphetamine, and toxic inhalants is being noted. The average age at first use in juvenile drug courts is 10-12 years, with some programs reporting usage as early as eight years.

Who is The Drug Court "Client"?

Over 90,000 individuals have enrolled in drug courts to date, with approximately 70% having graduated or still participating. A profile of 256 drug court participants in the final phases of 55 different drug courts in 23 different states and other data reported by operating programs, indicates the following:

Participant Enrollment and Performance

Significantly more males than females are enrolling in drug court programs; in some programs, females who participate in drug courts are more heavily involved with drugs by the time they become involved in the criminal court process than males. o Where day care, special women's groups, and other special services are offered, females are graduating at a higher rate than their male counterparts. o For voluntary programs, a high percent age of defendants offered the opportunity o participate in the drug court accept it despite the more rigorous requirements of the drug court compared with the traditional sanction to which they are exposed.

Participant Demographics

Marital Status of Responding Participants
Marital Status By Gender

This data is consistent with 1998 data reported by 100+ drug courts.