Skip to Main ContentInstitutionalizing Drug Courts

II. Developing a Stable Funding Base: Lessons From the Field

Participants at the focus group meeting agreed that, although not every drug court is functioning effectively, those that have proved their effectiveness should have the resources to continue operating. Although stable funding is not the ultimate goal of institutionalization efforts, it is a means to the overall goals of reducing substance abuse and related criminal behavior. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen the drug court’s capacity to provide needed services by securing adequate funding from a combination of local, State, and other sources after initial Federal grant funding has been exhausted.

The focus group meeting revealed that potential funding models vary as much as the operating models of drug courts. Specific budgetary approaches are likely to be different in every State and even within States. However, basic strategies for obtaining stable funding have already produced promising results in some States. At the focus group meeting, practitioners from Florida and California—the first States to have operating drug courts—outlined their efforts to develop reliable funding streams.


With the blessing of the Florida Supreme Court, Miami’s drug court began in 1989. Although local initiative has driven the development of all of the drug courts in Florida, the supreme court and the State court administrator’s office have stayed in close touch with local developments from the outset. By the mid-1990s, drug courts had been established in several counties, including populous urban areas (e.g., Pensacola, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Jacksonville) and sparsely populated rural areas (e.g., Florida Keys). The drug court judges and coordinators in these areas initiated links with regional offices of State agencies—especially the departments of corrections, health, and children and families—to gain support for supervision, treatment, and social services for drug court participants.

At the State level, the court administrator’s office assigned a senior staff member to provide technical assistance to the emerging drug courts, including

  • Creating a guide for the development and operation of drug courts.

  • Organizing a statewide conference for drug court practitioners.

  • Helping to obtain grant funding for evaluation research in specific drug courts.

Staff in the State court administrator’s office also solicited other State agencies, such as the Florida Department of Corrections, to fulfill some of the operations of local-level drug courts. The local courts had primary responsibility for developing their programs and obtaining needed startup funding (most often through Federal grants supplemented with in-kind services through regional offices of State agencies), but there was a continuing interest from the State-level judicial branch.

By the mid-1990s, as the number of drug courts increased rapidly and experience with existing drug courts continued to show promising results, the links between the local drug courts and the State court administrator’s office became stronger and, from the standpoint of developing a stable funding base, more important. The State office became a focal point for developing partnerships with Florida’s department of corrections, department of health, and department of children and families, all three of which were helpful to drug courts in providing funding for supervision, treatment, and social services at the local level. More recently, the supreme court has formed a statewide drug court steering committee that consists mainly of trial-level judges and other practitioners. The Governor’s office (which has a senior official responsible for drug control policy) has become actively involved in developing policy affecting drug courts, coordinating funding support from the executive branch departments of corrections, health, and children and families. The legislature—with input from the Governor’s office, the statewide steering committee, and the State court administrator’s office—has begun funding new positions to provide administrative support for drug court operations in the State’s circuit courts.

The Florida practitioners at the focus group meeting stressed the importance of collaboration and partnerships at both the State and local levels. One important early decision was to rely on established State agencies (and their local or regional branches) to contribute funds to support treatment and social services needed by the drug courts. From the outset, leaders of the drug court movement in local and State Florida courts have emphasized a collaborative approach, with funding from various sources. Also, they have nurtured collaborative relationships with leaders in both the executive and legislative branches over many years and have strongly emphasized evaluation of the drug courts.


The nation’s second drug court was started in Oakland, California. The Oakland experience was a focal point for a conference held in 1992 for California judges who were concerned about the high volume of cases involving drug and alcohol charges. That conference and a 1993 national conference on drug courts, held in Miami, catalyzed action by judges who saw the drug court model as a promising alternative to traditional criminal case processing. Once started, the concept spread rapidly. By mid-2000, California had more than 100 active drug courts.

As in Florida and elsewhere, California drug courts have developed various models and practices, influenced strongly by local circumstances and personalities. Initial funding for local-level drug courts came largely from grants, but over the past several years, considerable headway has been made in developing more stable funding support from the State. As of 2000, the legislature committed $26 million to support drug courts for both operational costs and treatment services. The California Association of Drug Court Professionals—a strong statewide association of drug court practitioners, including virtually all of the drug court judges in the State—has played a key role in teaching practitioners about drug court operations and getting policymakers’ support for drug court funding. The association’s leaders have focused on all three branches of government, following a multipronged strategy that includes face-to-face meetings with key officials, invitations to legislators to observe drug court sessions and graduations, and development of position papers.

At the State level, California’s Chief Justice and the California Judicial Council assisted in the development of drug courts by providing financial support (through a grant program administered by the office of the State court administrator), helping to organize educational programs on drug courts, and encouraging evaluation research. The State-level support within the judiciary has been particularly important because the California courts moved toward State funding of court system operations during the 1990s.

Like their Florida counterparts, the California focus group participants stressed the importance of collaboration, partnerships, evaluation, and education, including that of judges, other justice system practitioners, and leaders and key staff in executive branch agencies and the legislature. They emphasized two additional aspects of their approach to developing long-term funding support:

  • Their adoption of standards for drug courts (drawn from the publication Defining Drug Courts: The Key Components, developed by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals with funding from the Drug Courts Program Office (DCPO).

  • The use of committees and task forces, initially committees of the State association and subsequently committees and task forces linked to the California Judicial Council.

The standards provided a readily understandable reference tool and measures against which the performance of drug courts could be assessed. The committees brought more practitioners into the network of people seeking funding, and the committee reports and recommendations were vehicles for initiating action.

After the case studies presented by the Florida and California practitioners, focus group participants compared the two approaches. Two major differences were identified. First, the Florida Supreme Court and State court administrator’s office played more significant roles in the early development of drug courts than the California Supreme Court and California State court administrator’s office. However, as State funding became a more significant issue in California, State-level judicial system leaders began playing an increasingly important role. Second, the courts in Florida had not sought to gain any direct control over fiscal resources used to pay for treatment services, whereas in California they had.

The differences in State-level involvement and funding control were overshadowed by the common themes that emerged when practitioners from the two States talked about factors that contributed to initial success in obtaining stable funding, including

  • The importance of State-level leadership—most important (at least initially) within the judicial branch, but ultimately—in all three branches of government in support of drug courts.

  • An emphasis on collaboration and the development of alliances at the local level, across the State (through State drug court associations and steering committees), and between local leaders and leaders in the executive branch and legislature.

  • Evaluation results, not necessarily for all drug courts but enough to show that the basic concept is viable and cost effective.

  • Education, especially of judges (to familiarize them with drug court concepts and techniques) but also of other court and justice system personnel, local treatment and social service providers, community groups, business leaders, policymakers at both the State and local levels, and the media.

The relevance of all of these factors was underscored as participants highlighted key aspects of drug court development in their own States. Although the overwhelming majority of drug courts developed through local grassroots initiatives during the 1990s, participants generally agreed that their long-term viability and further growth would require State-level leadership support, especially from within the judicial branch. That support can come in many forms, including recognition of drug court successes, sponsorship of conferences and other education programs, direct technical assistance, and assistance in developing financial support.

The financial support can be particularly tricky for State court system leaders, because they must consider a broad range of court issues and needs that require funding. Additionally, they recognize that the costs of operating a drug court are likely to be significantly greater than a conventional criminal court, with many of the costs being devoted to expenses not typically considered part of a court’s budget. When State judicial system leaders engage in developing support for drug courts, however, they can be instrumental in building the alliances needed to gain financial support for drug courts.

In Utah, for example, the State court administrator’s office has played a key role in assessing the resource implications of providing long-term funding for drug courts and developing a collaborative strategy for obtaining the needed funding. Senior staff recognized that drug courts constitute a promising approach to a problem that cuts across many sectors of governmental activity but felt that adequate funding would be unlikely to come through the courts alone or from a single executive branch agency. The office initiated a collaborative effort with local drug courts and the State’s departments of corrections, human services, and health to leverage funding for Utah’s drug courts, emphasizing the potential savings in prison, health, and social service costs that can result from well-functioning drug courts. The coalition was successful in arranging for a significant portion of Utah’s share of the tobacco litigation settlement to be dedicated to drug courts and is collaborating on long-term funding strategies that involve reorganization of the use of existing and potential resources.

  Institutionalizing Drug Courts March 2002