Skip to Main ContentInstitutionalizing Drug Courts


With more than 600 in operation and more in the planning stages, drug courts have become an increasingly important part of criminal justice and substance abuse treatment systems in communities across America. Drug courts have grown exponentially since the first one began operations in Miami in 1989, and the justice system and treatment practitioners who have had experience with drug courts are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about them. The reasons for this enthusiasm are clear: they have succeeded where other approaches have failed, and they represent an innovative and promising way of responding to the deep-rooted problem of drugs and crime in American society.

Drug courts combine a problem-solving orientation with techniques that promote accountability for individual participants and for the drug court itself. They offer a collaborative and nonadversarial model of justice system operations linked with effective treatment services and community resources, relying on a team approach to address the needs of drug-abusing offenders. Growing evidence shows that they are effective in reducing recidivism, reducing drug use, and helping drug-abusing individuals change their lifestyles and become productive citizens.

Although drug courts have many strong proponents, their future is uncertain. Many of the drug courts operating are at least partly supported by some type of grant funding, much of it provided through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Courts Program Office. Few of them have a stable funding base or are truly integrated into the operations of the trial courts within which they function.

The May 2000 focus group meeting was convened to give experienced practitioners and policymakers the opportunity to consider previous experiences with development of funding support for drug courts and to discuss ideas for next steps. Focus group participants, which included administrators with responsibility for overall State court systems or local trial court operations and drug court practitioners, were asked to address five main questions:

  1. What is (or should be) meant by “institutionalization” in the context of drug courts at this stage of their development?

  2. What is the experience to date with efforts to obtain long-term stable funding for drug courts?

  3. What are the main obstacles to developing stable funding for drug courts?

  4. What are the most promising strategies that drug court leaders and their allies can use to overcome obstacles and develop stable long-term funding for well-functioning drug courts?

  5. Looking beyond the funding issues, what are the characteristics of successful drug courts that can and should be brought into much wider use in courts and justice systems?

The remainder of this report is organized into sections that address these questions, drawing on discussions at the focus group meeting. The report reflects 1 1/2 days of intensive discussion among the participants and we believe it contains valuable information, insights, and suggestions. However, we recognize it is not a comprehensive discussion of the complex topic of drug court institutionalization. Hopefully, the report will be useful to drug court practitioners (especially those responsible for securing funding for their drug courts), court administrators at the State and trial court levels, and, more generally, policymakers at all levels of government.

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  Institutionalizing Drug Courts
March 2002