Skip to Main ContentInstitutionalizing Drug Courts

I. Defining “Institutionalization”: A Range of Views

At the outset of the focus group meeting, participants were asked to share their views on institutionalization—particularly, what the idea of institutionalizing drug courts meant to them. Participants drew on experiences in many different jurisdictions, with some using a statewide frame of reference and others focusing on institutionalizing local drug courts. It quickly became apparent that the concept of institutionalization varies widely among practitioners and observers, as evidenced by the following definitions provided by focus group participants:

  • Drug courts continue to exist.

  • Drug courts are adequately funded.

  • Drug courts have a stable funding base.

  • Chief justices and trial court chief judges recognize the value of drug courts.

  • Drug courts are part of the system throughout the State.

  • Drug courts have broad judicial support.

  • Drug courts are a widely accepted part of the system throughout the State.

  • Drug courts have sufficient resources to provide their services to all who need them.

  • The drug court continues to function effectively after the initial charismatic leader has moved on.

  • The trial court routinely makes provision for a trained substitute judge to be in drug court when the regularly assigned drug court judge is away.

  • Drug courts are widely accepted as a credible method of dispensing justice in appropriate drug-related cases.

  • Drug courts are recognized as fundamental to the mission of the justice system.

  • The trial court uses time standards that are appropriate for drug court.

  • Drug courts are closely linked to the rest of the court system, treatment and social service support systems, and other problem-solving courts throughout the State.

  • Drug courts are the way we do business in all cases involving people who need the services and do not pose risks of violence.

  • The philosophy and basic concepts underlying drug courts are incorporated into courts and into the justice system and treatment community, regardless of whether what we now call drug courts receive long-term funding.

Overall, participants advanced two primary ideas about the concept of institutionalization. Many—particularly those actively engaged in the day-to-day operations of drug courts that are supported to a significant extent by grant funding—defined institutionalization as the development of long-term stable funding to support all operations of existing drug courts. Others defined institutionalization more broadly, focusing less on the availability of funding and more on the incorporation of drug court concepts, strategies, and techniques into the ongoing operations of courts that handle a wide variety of cases in which substance abuse is a problem or in which the basic drug court approach can be adapted, independent of currently existing drug courts.

The two lines of thought are not contradictory. Although the emphasis on drug court concepts might have a broader sweep, its proponents agreed that wide application of these concepts could be assisted by the development of stable funding for well-functioning drug courts. Proponents of both views agreed that, in the short time since the first drug court began operating a little over a decade ago, drug courts have greatly affected the justice system. Much research shows that drug courts work: they can make a significant positive difference in the lives of people and communities and can do so cost effectively. The basic drug court model—court supervision combined with substance abuse treatment, delivered through a collaborative approach involving the court, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, probation officers, treatment providers, health care providers, social service providers, and community and business groups—has proved effective in reducing both criminal behavior and substance abuse in a wide variety of jurisdictions.

Given the agreement that drug courts are a successful innovation, focus group participants framed a two-fold challenge: First, what can and should be done to ensure that drug courts that are functioning effectively become a permanent part of the court and justice systems within which they now function? Accordingly, what needs to be done to ensure that the policies and procedures developed in well-functioning drug courts can survive turnover in personnel (including rotation of judges assigned to the drug court), so that the drug court is not dependent on specific individuals or personalities? Second, how can leaders of existing trial courts, State court systems, and other justice system institutions and agencies draw on the experiences of successful drug courts to make lasting improvements in operations and results? That is, how can drug court concepts and techniques become more fully integrated into mainstream courts and justice systems? The ideas of the focus group regarding these challenges are outlined in the remaining sections of this report.

  Institutionalizing Drug Courts March 2002