Feature: Twenty Years of Drug Courts -- Results and Misgivings

The drug court phenomenon celebrates its 20th birthday this year. The first drug court, designed to find a more effective way for the criminal justice system to deal with drug offenders, was born in Miami in 1989 under the guidance of then local prosecutor Janet Reno. Since then, drug courts have expanded dramatically, with their number exceeding 2000 today, including at least one in every state.

drug court scene
According to Urban Institute estimates, some 55,000 people are currently in drug court programs. The group found that another 1.5 million arrestees would probably meet the criteria for drug dependence and would thus be good candidates for drug courts.

The notion behind drug courts is that providing drug treatment to some defendants would lead to better outcomes for them and their communities. Unlike typical criminal proceedings, drug courts are intended to be collaborative, with judges, prosecutors, social workers, and defense attorneys working together to decide what would be best for the defendant and the community.

Drug courts can operate either by diverting offenders into treatment before sentencing or by sentencing offenders to prison terms and suspending the sentences providing they comply with treatment demands. They also vary in their criteria for eligibility: Some may accept only nonviolent, first-time offenders considered to be addicted, while others may have broader criteria.

Such courts rely on sanctions and rewards for their clients, with continuing adherence to treatment demands met with a loosening of restrictions and relapsing into drug use subjected to ever harsher punishments, typically beginning with a weekend in jail and graduating from there. People who fail drug court completely are then either diverted back into the criminal justice system for prosecution or, if they have already been convicted, sent to prison.

Drug courts operate in a strange and contradictory realm that embraces the model of addiction as a disease needing treatment, yet punishes failure to respond as if it were a moral failing. No other disease is confronted in such a manner. There are no diabetes courts, for example, where one is placed under the control of the criminal justice system for being sick and subject to "flash incarceration" for eating forbidden foods.

Conceptual dilemmas notwithstanding, drug courts have been extensively studied, and the general conclusion is that, within the parameters of the therapeutic/criminal justice model, they are successful. A recently released report from the Sentencing Project is the latest addition to the literature, or, more accurately, review of the literature.

In the report, Drug Courts: A Review of the Evidence, the group concluded that:

  • Drug courts have generally been demonstrated to have positive benefits in reducing recidivism.
  • Evaluations of the cost-effectiveness of drug courts have generally found benefits through reduced costs of crime or incarceration.
  • Concern remains regarding potential "net-widening" effects of drug courts by drawing in defendants who might not otherwise have been subject to arrest and prosecution.

"What you have with drug courts is a program that the research has shown time and time again works," said Chris Deutsch, associate director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in suburban Washington, DC. "We all know the problems facing the criminal justice system with drug offenders and imprisonment. We have established incentives and sanctions as an important part of the drug court model because they work," he said. "One of the reasons drug courts are expanding so rapidly," said Deutsch, "is that we don't move away from what the research shows works. This is a scientifically validated model."

"There is evidence that in certain models there is success in reducing recidivism, but there is not a single model that works," said Ryan King, coauthor of the Sentencing Project report. "We wanted to highlight common factors in success, such as having judges with multiple turns in drug court and who understand addiction, and building on graduated sanctions, but also to get people to understand the weaknesses."

"Drug courts are definitely better than going to prison," said Theshia Naidoo, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has championed a less coercive treatment-not-jail program in California's Proposition 36, "but they are not the be-all and end-all of addressing drug abuse. They may be a step forward in our current prohibitionist system, but when you look at their everyday operations, it's pretty much criminal justice as usual."

That was one of the nicest things said about drug courts by harm reductionists and drug policy reformers contacted this week by the Chronicle. While drug courts can claim success as measured by the metrics embraced by the therapeutic-criminal justice complex, they appear deeply perverse and wrongheaded to people who do not embrace that model.

Remarks by Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy hit many of the common themes. "If drug courts result in more people being caught up in the criminal justice system, I do not see them as a good thing," he said. "The US has one out of 31 people in prison on probation or on parole, and that's a national embarrassment more appropriate for a police state than the land of the free. If drug courts are adding to that problem, they are part of the national embarrassment, not the solution."

But Zeese was equally disturbed by the therapeutic-criminal justice model itself. "Forcing drug treatment on people who happen to get caught is a very strange way to offer health care," he observed. "We would see a greater impact if treatment on request were the national policy and sufficient funds were provided to treatment services so that people who wanted treatment could get it quickly. And, the treatment industry would be a stronger industry if they were not dependent on police and courts to be sending them 'clients' -- by force -- and if instead they had to offer services that people wanted."

For Zeese, the bottom line was: "The disease model has no place in the courts. Courts don't treat disease, doctors and health professionals do."

In addition to such conceptual and public policy concerns, others cited more specific problems with drug court operations. "In Connecticut, the success of drug courts depends on educated judges," said Robert Heimer of the Yale University School of Public Health. "For example, in some parts of the state, judges refused to send defendants with opioid addiction to methadone programs. This dramatically reduced the success of the drug courts in these parts of the state compared to parts of the state where judges referred people to the one proven medically effective form of treatment for their addiction."

Heimer's complaint about the rejection of methadone maintenance therapy was echoed on the other side of the Hudson River by upstate New York drug reformer Nicolas Eyle of Reconsider: Forum on Drug Policy. "Most, if not all, drug courts in New York abhor methadone and maintenance treatment in general," he noted. "This is troubling because the state's recent Rockefeller law reforms have a major focus on treatment in lieu of prison, suggesting that more and more hapless people will be forced to enter treatment they may not need or want. Then the judge decides what type of treatment they must have, and when they don't achieve the therapeutic goals set for them they'll be hauled off to serve their time."

Still, said Heimer, "Such courts can work if appropriate treatment options are available, but if the treatment programs are bad, then it is unlikely that courts will work. In such cases, if the only alternative is then incarceration, there is little reason for drug courts. If drug court personnel think their program is valuable, they should be consistently lobbying for better drug treatment in their community. If they are not doing this, then they are contributing to the circumstances of their own failure, and again, the drug user becomes the victim if the drug court personnel are not doing this."

Even within the coerced treatment model, there are more effective approaches than drug courts, said Naidoo. "Drug courts basically have a zero tolerance policy, and many judges just don't understand addiction as a chronic relapsing condition, so if there is a failed drug test, the court comes in with a hammer imposing a whole series of sanctions. A more effective model would be to look at the overall context," she argued. "If the guy has a dirty urine, but has found a job, has gotten housing, and is reunited with his family, maybe he shouldn't be punished for the relapse. The drug court would punish him."

Other harm reductionists were just plain cynical about drug courts. "I guess they work in reducing the drug-related harm of going to prison by keeping people out of prison -- except when they're sending people to prison," said Delaney Ellison, a veteran Michigan harm reductionist and activist. "And that's exactly what drug courts do if you're resistant to treatment or broke. Poor, minority people can't afford to complete a time-consuming drug court regime. If a participant finds he can't pay the fines, go to four hours a day of outpatient treatment, and pay rent and buy food while trapped in the system, he finds a way to prioritize and abandons the drug court."

An adequate health care system that provided treatment on demand is what is needed, Ellison said. "And most importantly, when are we going to stop letting cops and lawyers -- and this includes judges -- regulate drugs?" he asked. "These people don't know anything about pharmacology. When do we lobby to let doctors and pharmacists regulate drugs?"

Drug courts are also under attack on the grounds they deny due process rights to defendants. In Maryland, the state's public defender last week argued that drug courts were unconstitutional, complaining that judges should not be allowed to send someone to jail repeatedly without a full judicial hearing.

"There is no due process in drug treatment court," Public Defender Nancy Foster told the Maryland Court of Appeals in a case that is yet to be decided.

Foster's argument aroused some interest from the appeals court judges. One of them, Judge Joseph Murphy, noted that a judge talking to one party in a case without the other party being present, which sometimes happens in drug courts, has raised due process concerns in other criminal proceedings. "Can you do that without violating the defendant's rights?" he asked.

A leading advocate of the position that drug courts interfere with due process rights is Williams College sociologist James Nolan. In an interview last year, Nolan summarized his problem with drug courts. "My concern is that if we make the law so concerned with being therapeutic, you forget about notions of justice such as proportionality of punishment, due process and the protection of individual rights," Nolan said. "Even though problem-solving advocates wouldn't want to do away with these things, they tend to fade into the background in terms of importance."

In that interview, Nolan cited a Miami-Dade County drug court participant forced to remain in the program for seven years. "So here, the goal is not about justice," he said. "The goal is to make someone well, and the consequences can be unjust because they are getting more of a punishment than they deserve."

Deutsch said he was "hesitant" to comment on criticisms of the drug court model, "but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to keeping drug addicted offenders out of the criminal justice system and in treatment, drug courts are the best option available."

For the Sentencing Project's King, drug courts are a step up from the depths of the punitive prohibitionist approach, but not much of one. "With the drug courts, we're in a better place now than we were 20 years ago, but it's not the place we want to be 20 years from now," he said. "The idea that somebody needs to enter the criminal justice system to access public drug treatment is a real tragedy."

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The criminal justice approach to regulating drugs is a failure

If you want to impact drug use as a whole then you regulate the market as a whole, such as price control via taxation. You can't do that by just punishing a tiny percentage of drug using population who had the misfortune of coming in contact with the criminal justice system.

Drug courts directly punish some religious beliefs

I've read up a bit on drug courts lately and from my standpoint they are more direct attacks on religious belief than jail or prison. The only "treatment" they'd offer me is religious re-education and I reject that. I'm not addicted to any drugs, I'm not using any drugs in a way that is harmful to myself or the public. I do use some drugs beneficially and in accord with my religious beliefs of 40 years.

"Unlike typical criminal proceedings, drug courts are intended to be collaborative, with judges, prosecutors, social workers, and defense attorneys working together to decide what would be best for the defendant and the community." Part of what I've read about drug courts is that just not violating any drug laws until whatever amount of time goes by (apparently indefinite semi-detention at best) isn't enough. If you won't at least fake confession and repentance you'll be punished for not co-operating; apparently jacked around for a while and if you're "resistant to treatment" long enough you probably get locked up without the drug court time even counting as time served. That bad attitude might even hurt you at parole hearings later on.

I've very strong religious beliefs about certain psychedelics, cannabis and medicine in general which I pretty much perceive as the three basic categories of "medicine". Mere belief without appropriate action is as unacceptable to me as it would be if I were a devout Lutheran (which I have been). My beliefs are difficult to describe accurately, briefly or without using unsatisfactory and pretentious terms, but I can say that regarding "drugs" they are often extremely different than the governmentally approved creed. For that matter, my beliefs about inherent civil liberties, independent of my religious beliefs, are strongly at odds with the government's (in practice rather than as expressed in sources such as the Bill of Rights).

I don't know that I wouldn't be willing to try and fake my way through drug court rather than go to prison but I'm certain I wouldn't be able to do it successfully. I think my sense of oppression would be much stronger than if I just got locked up without being required to denounce my beliefs. The point I want to make is that for some part of the population drug court "treatment" is an attack against religious freedom which is supposed to be one of the most fundamental liberties. This is a matter that needs to be addressed in discussion about drug courts.

You're Right + Changing vices... from soft to hard is stupid!

This atheist couldn't agree more... why would I accept the drug rehab institution as my savior... they still don't know that alcohol is a drug yet.

Why does the rehab comm. still offer 'drug and alcohol addiction treatment'? Haven't they learned yet that alocohol is a drug, in fact it's the epitome of drugs and remains the original gateway drug, and amerikas national drug of choice... thanks to our white european ancestors.

I respect everyones right to pursue happiness and if god & jesus is what makes you happy then I will fight to protect your rights. But I personally do not consider trading a soft drug like marijuana for a hard drug like religious philosophy to be in most peoples best interest.

If the new definition for alcoholic drug addiction is correct, 4 or more standard alcoholic beverages on any day, then just set-up shop at your nearest NASCAR track and you'll find all the boozing druggies you can handle!

Humanistically Yours,
Smokin' Since '75

Separate Justice Can Never be Equal Justice

Drug courts were created to make the draconian Jim Crow drug war more palatable to Democrat liberals. And they succeeded. Democrat liberals simply ignore the injustices of the drug war appeased by the facade of tolerance that drug courts place on the bars of the endlessly growing prison industrial complex.

Bingo! Special Rights for Special People... NOT!

Yup, them liberal democrats took the easy road out... but they, like their arch-buddies the republicans, call it political compromise.

The problem remains the same... people think that they deserve... then demand special rights... that do not exist!

Everytime we allow congress to take credit for partially reinstating a right that was unlawfully alienated from us in the first place we are detracting from the facts... the drug war, especially marijuana prohibition under the guise of regulation, is illegal... and those responsible for these crimes are criminals!

Authoritarian Subversion

of the rule of law and justice.

Like all aspects of the drug war prohibition policy drug courts turn even the rule of law on its head by making justice criminal.

I am so glad to see so many critics of this human rights atrocity of a system.

If we could just get the reform movement LEADERSHIP to grow balls and become ACTIVISTS, LEAD public demonstrations against these social justice abuses, we might influence our politicians to do right by our nation for a change.


Drug Courts, the McDonalds of the Justice System

I'm a member of a Drug Court in NJ. My observation is they're just another way to get a cut of the Drug War money. They're marketed as a cheaper way to handle drug addicts who would be on their way to costly prison beds, but in reality it's just a way to extend probation and supervision to people who do not belong in the criminal justice system. More jobs for prosecutors, more jobs for lawyers, TASC evaluators, probation officers... etc.

I've been seeing such a flow of people coming in since it opened, it's almost like they're giving anyone drug court. It's one sided once you're sentenced. Every decision is up to the "team" which consists of your probation officer, the drug court public defender, the drug court prosecutor, the drug court judge, and your counselor. You have no say after you are sentenced, what they say goes. It's a surrender of your rights. I've already been jailed 2 times falsely for problems THEY had with urines i've given, with no way to have a hearing or redemption to prove my innocence even though I did nothing wrong.

Nobody ever takes into consideration that treatment is not a solution, when it's forced. How many times were we told we should go to the dentist for our aching tooth, only to ignore it for a time until it hurt so bad we finally gave up and went? It's the same way with an addict. Who is anyone to have the right to arrest someone and say they HAVE to go to treatment, where they have to talk about problems and discuss feelings and emotions they may not be ready to talk about. They have to go to meetings, where to participate they have to believe in a higher power and once again speak about emotions and feelings and thoughts. This is another sad approach to treating addicts. The reality is anyone on Drug Court that doesn't commit another crime is because they're tired of jail, and they're too supervised under drug court for it to be worth it. Most of the people I see that complete it here couldn't wait to get to the bar or that first drug. And in the mean time, I've had some good friends who got clean on their own without any sort of legal supervision.

Once again it falls back to make treatment available to those who want it, when they're ready.

Nice comment!

Thank you for such a candid comment. Most of your cohorts are thought to feel differently about it, because it gives them a paycheck.

Why would you be so honest? Thank you! It is refreshing to see such honesty, especially in such a broken "justice" system! We do need to try something different. Even, you see the failures of the present system. And, you have to see it every day you work!

If you're commenting on my

If you're commenting on my post, I'm sorry if I confused you.. By member of Drug Court I meant I'm a probationer.. A participant, a victim, a drug addict, a criminal. No one a staff member would surely comment in such a way as they feel the bidding they're doing is righteous.

I hope this doesn't change your views.

Not at all!

Only slightly changed how I look at it. You certainly have first hand knowledge! What is really wrong is getting money from a person who finds it hard to even get a job! There is no longer a way to "pay your debt to society". It is like having a life sentence! It is a medical problem that the justice system will never solve!

My wife worries about being asked to become full time, where she works. She got a script forgery charge for trying to get enough pain medication to cover her for the month, when her doctor would not write enough! Thank God her migraines have decreased and she only has cramps once a month! She still has no idea when her IBS will get bad and put her in bed. Or, when her bladder will start hurting her! But, they all seem to have decreased over the past few years! Right now, she does without pain control. She has threatened suicide over the pain, before. So far, it has not happened!

And the drug tests can be wrong. Too bad that cop got a hot urine! HA HA!

Who is the criminal?

Not you (unless you stole to fund your drug consumption).

But rather the government- re: kidnapping-extortion (15 years to life for them)!!!

Re:Drug court

Yeah I was an Unwitting participant in one of the first "Drug Courts" The brain child of judge Zimian in Boston. I say "unwitting" because as any dope fiend knows if you're sitting in the dock in cuffs and ANYTHING you can agree to to make them say "step out and see probation" you're gonna jump on. Little did I know that instead of 30 days in I'd be chased around by the "drug court" warrant for close to 2 years. And @that time a "drug court" participant could not be oin Methadone(the one treatment that ever worked for me) I Finally ended up taking 6months insisde to finally be DONE with the entire drug court system. This was almost a decade ago maybe it's gotten better. But as long as drug courts stick to the "abstinence is success" fallicy they will continue to entangle people in a needlessly long criminal justice mess. Just my own experience-Cheer Rah

Bet the drugged courts and rehabbers can't abstain...

Bet the drugged courts and rehabbers can't abstain... from their addictive ways: Easy money, power, greed, propaganda, god, jesus, government, the rule of unlawful laws, etc... are far more dangerous vices then mary can ever be!

Allies of Mary

Promting Harder Drugs

Because the criminal drug courts follow the false path of total abstinence, they unwittingly promote concentrated drugs over MJ, due to MJ remaining in the body longer.

Perhaps God punishes drug court 'judges' as so in New Rochelle NY by giving them cancer?

Karma... Maybe! God?... Hell NO!

Karma... Maybe! God?... Hell NO!

As an atheist, that considers enlightenment a life long journey & endeavor, I would have to reject the god theory of punishment.

If god did exist, which is a theory I don't subscribe to, I would be a deist... not a scripture subscribing christian.

Christians frequently and falsely place their faith in heavenly forms of punishments and justice.

I prefer the possibility of bad karma as a result of unenlighted philosophy(s) that can seriously impair the rational mind resulting in Cognitive Dissonance Disorder (CDD).

Consider how easy it is for a judge to become a victim of his own self inflicted
CDD if he places religious faith over societal facts or places greater legal value in illegal congressional laws then constitutional and common law as stated in the Declaration of Independence, etc...

Thankfully, CDD can only infect the irrational mind and is easy to cure with facts and an enlightened philosophy, otherwise, unchecked it creates great imbalance to the mind, body, and spirit equation... possibly weakening the immune system to cancer or other illness... especially stress related illnesses!

Humanistically Yours,
Smokin' Since '75

i cant afford drug court

i was cought with a friend bag in my car after i spent all my cash in lawyers i cnnot afford to get tested twice a week and gas,what do i do they even made me quit methadone and im too sick to go....think about this no job criminal record and jail time...is this justice

As a single parent living

As a single parent living twenty miles out of town and in drug court cuz I pissed dirty for pot( am now clean as a whistle), im aout to lose my job on account of all the missed work, how can I possibly make this work? Help me! What can I do? Is there some sort of hardship clause I feel like theyre saying "We will help those lazy bastards on welfare that have no job and all the time in the world, But a working man? FU". What the hell? How do I get my PO to let me off? Im willing to go piss for him EVERY day if necesary if hes that worried about me being clean. Im scared to death and dont know what to do. please someone help me and my eight year old boy.

Drug Court Is Insanity

I am looking for help. My future wife has been doing drug court and it seems she had lost all her rights. We are not allowed to see her, talk to her, or have any relationship with her at all. They tell her its damaging to her. We were supposed to get married and now they tell her to get her own place and not have a relationship at all. What is wrong with getting married and spending our lives together. Why are they telling her to dump her entire family and move on. Please anyone that can help us  call me at 609 220-1905 I am a resident in New Jersey. We are engaged have a nice house together and all she needed  was some drug treatment which she successfully completed and is clean. Not to be placed in prison where they tell her how and who to live her life with and if she don't listen they will throw her in jail. Does she have any rights at all? Please help, 609 220 1905


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