Drug Courts

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Drug courts emerged as a method for responding to America's drug problems at a time when health, treatment and justice systems were overwhelmed by the drug epidemics of the 1980s. The dramatic increase in the availability of cocaine and, later, crack cocaine, particularly in America's cities, translated into a new challenge for the criminal justice system that was already at its limits. The volume of court cases exploded, pushing the judicial process to its limits and threatening traditional modes of managing the criminal caseload. Worse, the huge wave of arrests of drug offenders beginning in and accelerating during the 1980s found a correctional system of local jails and state prisons in many locations in the nation that were already chronically overcrowded. With little room in prisons for the new arrestees, institutional crowding was exacerbated and the processing of criminal cases was slowed, causing backlogs in the courts and a wide range of problems for the justice system as a whole.

In Miami, at the gateway of major drug trafficking routes from South America, the drug crisis was particularly acute. A study had shown that approximately 90 percent of felony defendants entering the judicial process in Miami (Metropolitan Dade County) tested positively for drugs (excluding alcohol) at the time of their arrest. With historical hindsight, the innovation of the Miami Drug Court by its justice leaders (including its chief judge, Gerald Wetherington, its prosecutor, Janet Reno, its public defender, Bennet Brummer, and its control drug control administrator, Timothy Murray) seems obvious and common-sensical. The court system and government leaders reasoned that, if Dade County could not arrest and punish its way out of the drug problem, perhaps it should try providing treatment as a reasonable alternative to prosecution and confinement.

The first drug court in the United States went into operation in Miami under the supervision of Judge Stanley Goldstein, the nation's first drug court judge, in the summer of 1989. Since the breakthrough efforts of the Miami justice leaders, by all measures, the growth of treatment drug courts in the United States has been extraordinary, with upwards of 400 courts reportedly in operation in the year 2000 and others in some stage of planning or preparation. The drug court model has also been adapted in other countries, from Canada and Australia to Great Britain and Ireland.

Taken at its most challenging and as envisioned by its most ardent proponents, the drug court model potentially represents the first stages of a fundamental paradigm shift in justice away from a predominantly punitive orientation (a.k.a. "justice as usual") toward an approach that seeks to confront and meliorate the problems associated with persons who appear in the criminal caseload. The challenges implicit in this approach are fundamental and draw into the criminal court setting expertise from health and behavioral sciences as well as linkages with a variety of social services in relationships and configurations that produce a new mix of values, aspirations and methods to guide the judicial process. To their proponents, drug courts represent a major and promising departure from what had become an unrewarding routine of processing, punishing and re-punishing drug offenders to little avail. Instead, the drug court model takes on "root causes" of crime more easily ignored or viewed as someone else's responsibility.

The foundation of the drug court model lies in its underlying values, philosophical outlook, and the central role it assigns to the judge, as it incorporates a mix of values with a decided shift toward treatment and restoration of offenders to the community. The mix also includes deterrent and desert values that realistically circumscribe the arena of the drug court modality: it is transacted in a criminal (usually felony) courtroom. The therapeutic activities associated with the treatment-oriented drug court occur in a "theater in the square," the square representing not only the architectural features of the physical courtroom but also the boundaries imposed by the criminal process. Led and closely supervised by the drug court judge, the drug court operates in the context of the criminal process and, therefore, differs notably from substance abuse treatment that might be provided to addicted citizens in civilian contexts outside of the justice system. Within those judge-enforced boundaries marking the criminal process, however, the drug court model has innovated a new working relationship between the criminal court and health, treatment and related services that adapts the criminal process to the needs of treatment and an understanding of addiction. The drug court seeks to resolve the apparently contradictory aims of the typically punitive justice process and the more supportive treatment process.

Until recently, the likelihood that an offender identified as having a serious drug problem would be placed in treatment was poor and depended on being convicted and, usually, sentenced to probation. (Only in rare settings would a sentence to incarceration include the realistic possibility that drug treatment would be available.) For many decades, drug treatment has also been available as a condition of diversion for less serious offenses but has not demonstrated significant impact. From a judicial perspective, however, the court's typical involvement in substance abuse treatment was to order or "refer" offenders "out" to treatment, when such treatment was recommended by probation staff at the pre-sentence stage. The judge in such cases would have little other involvement in the treatment process, except to set treatment as a condition of probation, and, later, hear allegations of noncompliance at revocation hearings. By keeping a judicial distance from the treatment process, judges deferred to the expertise and practices of treatment providers and probation agencies whose responsibilities were to manage and monitor the treatment process.

Drug courts were "invented" to reinvent a helping justice role, similar to the one formerly played by probation services, but this time entrusted to the power, authority, symbolism and centrality of the criminal court judge and occurring at an earlier stage. Many early drug courts consciously excluded probation departments from their drug court design, although there were some notable exceptions (e.g., Maricopa County, Baltimore, and Oakland). While early drug courts ultimately found top-notch treatment providers willing to craft customized approaches to fit the needs of the drug courts, under former practices, treatment providers operated under their own rules and discretion in determining eligibility, level of care and termination, which reflected a different professional orientation and view of how substance abusers should be treated.

Previously there was little judicial input into the content of treatment programs and little two-way communication between the court and the treatment provider, except when the program needed to notify the court of an individual's completion of treatment or failure to comply with the requirements of the treatment process. Judges delegated the responsibility for treatment and supervision to probation and treatment providers. Under the "refer-out" model, treatment providers controlled admission screening (some resisted accepting criminal justice clients), the level of care to be provided (the mix and location of services, from outpatient to inpatient and including ancillary services), and the termination process. Typically, treatment providers could discharge an "uncooperative" client that was having a difficult time fulfilling the conditions of the program.

The drug court innovation sought to build the new approach based on a "hands-on" and engaged judicial role, a strong supervisory and case management approach (initially not necessarily involving probation), agreed upon, acceptable and relevant treatment services, and a more connected relationship with treatment providers in a court-treatment process in which the judge controlled the admission and termination criteria. Thus, by design under the drug court model, the drug court treatment program could not, on its own, reject difficult criminal justice clients accepted into the drug court and could not, without judicial approval, terminate participants when they had failed to comply with treatment program requirements.

Within these general elements of the treatment-oriented philosophy, the central judicial role and new criminal court-treatment relationship, drug courts are characterized by other distinguishing elements. The Drug Court Program Office of the U.S. Department of Justice sponsored an initiative by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) to identify key components of drug courts. The ten components identified by NADCP, adopted as a standard by the Justice Department in reviewing grant applications, include integration of treatment and case processing; a non-adversarial approach which also respects due process and public safety; early identification and enrollment of participants; provision of a continuum of treatment services; drug testing; court responses to performance in treatment; hands-on judicial supervision of treatment; monitoring and evaluation; continuing interdisciplinary education; and, forging partnerships between the court and other criminal justice, health, social service agencies and the community.

Prior to the NADCP practitioner-oriented process to identify key components of drug courts for the purposes of constructing standards, a working typology of drug courts identified eight critical dimensions of the drug court innovation mainly for the purposes of evaluation. These include the target problems drug courts were designed to address, specific criminal justice target populations they sought to enroll in treatment, mechanisms employed to identify and evaluate court treatment candidates, the ways in which they involved modifications to the traditional court process, the structure and content of the treatment delivered to substance abusing offenders, the methods employed in the drug courts to encourage positive and discourage negative behavior by participants (including the use of sanctions and rewards), the productivity of the courts (in terms of measurable outcomes such as reduced substance abuse and criminal behavior), and the extent of system-wide support in and outside criminal justice and health systems.

Although there are common elements shared by most drug courts, proliferation of the drug court model is not explained by the wholesale adoption of a fixed, "cookie-cutter" approach in the many jurisdictions across the nation. The original Miami model evolved in its successive adaptations in other settings, and was itself transformed in substance and procedure as the basic model traveled across the United States and to locations abroad. The drug court methodology has been adapted to grapple with other problems associated with court populations, including community issues, domestic violence and mental health and has directly and indirectly spawned a variety of related innovations, so that one can now speak of "problem-solving" or "problem-oriented" courts to refer to a more active, "hands-on" judicial and justice-system philosophy.

The rapidly growing volume of drug courts (as well as of other "problem-solving" courts) suggests that nationally the drug court experiment struck a fundamental chord of dissatisfaction with traditional justice machinery that seemed only to punish and process. A number of states (California, New York, Louisiana, Ohio, Florida), large counties (Los Angeles County, Clark County, Nevada), and large urban centers (Miami; Brooklyn; Buffalo; Portland, Oregon; Seattle) have incorporated drug courts into their administrative and budgetary planning processes because their growing numbers raise questions for court systems as a whole about priorities, resources, effective management, and performance standards.


Goldkamp, J. S. (1994). Justice and treatment innovation: The drug court movement: A working paper of the first National Drug Court Conference. Philadelphia: Crime and Justice Research Institute.

Goldkamp, J. S. (1999a). The origins of the treatment drug court in Miami. In C. Terry (Ed.), The early drug courts: Case studies in judicial innovation. Beverly Hills, Sage Publications.

Goldkamp, J. S. (1999b). Challenges for research and innovation: When is a drug court not a drug court? In C. Terry (Ed.), Judicial change and drug treatment courts: Case studies in innovation. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Goldkamp, J. S. (2000). The drug court response: Issues and implications for justice change. Albany Law Review, 63, 923-961.

Goldkamp, J. S., White, M. D., and Robinson, Jennifer. (2000). Retrospective evaluation of two pioneering drug courts: Phase I findings from Clark County, Nevada, and Multnomah County, Oregon. An interim report of the national evaluation of drug courts. Philadelphia: Crime and Justice Research Institute.

Hora, P. F., Schma, W. G., and Rosenthal, J.T.A. (1999). Therapeutic jurisprudence and the drug court movement: Revolutionizing the criminal justice system's response to drug abuse and crime in America. Notre Dame Law Review, 74, 439-537.

National Associationof Drug Court Professionals. (1997). Defining drug courts: The key components. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Drug Courts Program Office.

John S. Goldkamp

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A special court with jurisdiction over cases involving drug-using offenders. Drug courts are treatmentbased alternatives to prisons, youth-detention facilities, jails, andprobation. These courts make extensive use of comprehensive supervision, drug testing, treatment services, immediate sanctions, and incentives.

Drug courts concentrate the efforts of judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, substance-abuse treatment specialists, probation officers, law enforcement and correctional personnel, educational and vocational experts, community leaders, and others on individuals who are charged with illicit drug abuse. The criminal justice system works cooperatively with treatment systems and others to provide an offender with the necessary tools to get into recovery, stay in recovery, and lead a productive, crime-free life.

The drug court acts to help the offender change his or her life in order to stop criminal activity, rather than focusing only on punishment of the offender. Drug courts also help to provide consistent responses to drug offenses among the judiciary, and they can foster coordination between intervention agencies and resources, thus increasing the cost-effectiveness of drug-intervention programs. Successful completion of the drug court's treatment or intervention regimen usually results in the dismissal of drug charges, shortened or suspended sentences, or a combination of these. Participants acquire the wherewithal to rebuild their lives.

In 1989, the nation's first drug court was established in Miami, Florida. Circuit Court Judge Herbert M. Klein had become troubled by the negative effects of drug offenses on Dade County. He became determined to address the problem caused by widespread drug use. This first drug court became a model program for the nation.

Drug courts that followed the Miami model essentially began as diversionary programs that dealt with non-violent offenders. These subjects typically were charged with relatively minor offenses, such as simple drug possession or charges of driving under the influence.

At first, drug courts were geared toward adult populations. The successes of adult drug courts in intervention and in changing the lives of adult offenders prompted juvenile courts to establish similar drug court programs aimed at juvenile offenders. Juvenile drug courts likewise have proven successful, and now many jurisdictions include family drug courts that primarily hear substance-abuse and neglect cases.

Differing needs across jurisdictions have resulted in a variety of drug courts in terms of their structure, scope, and target populations, but they all share three primary goals: reduction of recidivism, reduction of substance abuse among participants, and rehabilitation of participants.

To achieve these goals, drug courts generally structure themselves to include the following features:

  • Incorporation of drug testing into case processing.
  • Creation of a non-adversarial relationship between the offender and the court.
  • Identification of offenders who are in need of treatment and referring them to treatment as soon as possible after arrest.
  • Access to a continuum of treatment and rehabilitation services.
  • Monitoring of abstinence through frequent, mandatory drug testing.
  • Establishment of a coordinated strategy to govern drug court responses to offenders' compliance.
  • Maintainence of judicial interaction with each drug court participant.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of program goals and effectiveness.
  • Continuing education to promote effective drug court planning, implementation, and operations.
  • Forging of partnerships among drug courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations in order to generate local support and to enhance drug court effectiveness.

Drug courts can be used for a variety of case types and are adaptable enough to fit the needs and acceptability of any given community. Jurisdictions tailor their drug courts to meet the specific needs of their communities. Most drug courts are pre-plea courts, but some drug courts are post-plea, and others are used as a method of alternative sentencing. In a pre-plea program, charges are deferred while the defendant is actively participating in the drug court program. At that point in the process, he or she has not pled guilty to any charges. This program is designed principally for non-violent, first-time, low-risk offenders.

Post-plea drug courts are not as common but are used mostly in the cases of more serious offenders when the prosecutor wants to ensure a guilty plea in order to avoid a trial. The chances of a more serious offender successfully completing a program in a drug court might be reduced, but the prosecution's trial-preparation time is saved in the event of failure.

As drug courts have consistently proven to be effective at controlling both the drug use and the criminality of drug-using offenders, communities have successfully expanded drug court programs to include those who are on probation for drug offenses, extending them to drug-using offenders who are charged with non-drug offenses. Some jurisdictions are even beginning to apply the drug court model to cases of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). In doing so, DUI courts, like the traditional drug courts, make DUI offenders accountable for their actions in ways that go beyond standard punitive measures such as fines and incarceration, thus helping to bring about a behavioral change among some DUI offenders that ends DUI recidivism, halts the abuse of alcohol, and protects the public.

The violent crime control and law enforcement act of 1994, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1033, 1034, signed by President william jefferson clinton on September 13, 1994, was a key factor behind the expansion of the drug court movement. This statute provided federal support for planning, implementing, and enhancing drug courts for nonviolent drug offenders. The Act was the product of six years of bipartisan efforts. It remains one of the largest crime bills in the history of the country and provides for a competitive grant program to support state and local drug courts that provide supervision and specialized services to offenders who have rehabilitation potential.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) administers the drug court grant program that was established under the 1994 Act. The BJA provides financial and technical assistance, training, program guidance, and leadership. It offers grants to jurisdictions for planning, implementing, or enhancing existing drug courts. In conjunction with the National Institute of Justice, BJA also evaluates drug court programs to identify the most effective program features and organizational structures to combat drug abuse and crime. State courts, local courts, units of local government, and American Indian tribal governments may apply for funding. $29 million was available in 1995, and $971 million was authorized under this program to cover the years 1996–2000.

The record of success, supported by large, federal support initiatives such as the 1994 Act, led to a rapid proliferation of drug courts throughout the United States. By the end of 2000, nearly 600 drug courts were in operation in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and two federal districts. Another 456 drug court programs were being planned.

Over 300,000 drug-using offenders have participated in drug court programs since 1989. In 2001, Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse updated its 1998 review of drug court research and evaluations. The updated report concludes that drug courts continue to provide the most comprehensive and effective control of the drug-using offenders' drug-related criminal activity and drug use while under the drug court's jurisdiction. For example, the average rate of recidivism for those who complete the drug court program is between 4 percent and 29 percent, as compared to 48 percent for offenders who do not participate in a drug court program.

Drug courts have paved the way for the latest criminal justice innovation: therapeutic jurisprudence. Accordingly, several jurisdictions are developing special dockets that are modeled after the drug court format. Courts and judges have become more receptive to new approaches and thus have brought about a proliferation of problem-solving courts, including DUI courts, domestic-violence courts, mental-health courts, and re-entry courts.

further readings

Hennessy, James J., and Nathaniel J. Pallone, eds. 2001. Drug Courts in Operation: Current Research. New York: Haworth Press.

Nolan, James L., Jr. 2001. Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

——. ed. 2002. Drug Courts in Theory and in Practice. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine De Gruyter.


Drugs and Narcotics; Drug Enforcement Administration; Office of National Drug Control Policy.