Do Drug Courts Work?


Since their inception in the late 80s, controversy and debate has surrounded drug courts in America. On one hand, they are championed for giving drug users opportunities to turn their lives around and become productive members of society, while also not criminalizing addiction and leaving prisons overcrowded. On the other hand, they are criticized for being too soft on drug abusers, who may commit property crimes to feed their habits. It boils down to your stance on some key questions:

1. Should drug users be criminally prosecuted?
2. Will incarcerating drug users ensure that they do not use drugs again?
3. Is the public put in danger by not incarcerating drug users?
4. Are drug courts effective in reducing drug use among participants?
5. Does incarcerating drug users benefit the public more than attempting to rehab them through drug courts?

A Brief History of Drug Courts in America

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), the first drug court in America was in Miami-Dade County, FL in 1989. Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges recognized they were repeatedly seeing many of the same faces related to drug use. This led them to believe that the traditional judicial system was not effectively correcting the problem and that they needed to find another way.

The solution they came up with was to combine court supervision with community-based addiction treatment in an effort to change the behavior of offenders.[1] This sparked a revolution in the treatment of drug offenders in the U.S. As of 2015, there were 3,133 drug courts in the U.S., with at least one in every state in the nation.[2]

Though more thorough research is needed, and some of the results have been debated, research since 1989 largely paints a picture of success with the drug courts. They have been linked to lower recidivism, higher court compliance, reduced public costs and lower levels of addiction.[3],[4]

Specifically, the NADCP has reported:

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75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free for at least two years following the program

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Drug courts save anywhere from $3,000 to $13,000 per person. This is based on reduced prison costs, repeat arrests and victimization

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Without regular court supervision, 70 percent of drug users will drop out of treatment prematurely

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Drug courts are six-times more likely to keep offenders in treatment long enough for it to be effective

The Drug Court Model

Just like all addiction rehab facilities are not created equally, neither are drug courts. This lack of standardization among drug courts throughout the nation makes accurately determining their success or failures more difficult. Several studies examining the efficacy of drug courts in America have highlighted that there is very little uniformity among programs from state to state and even county to county.[4]

One study used results from different programs to extrapolate a list of principles that all drug court programs should consider:[5]

  • Treatment should be based on behavioral approaches and use cognitive strategies
  • Treatment should be located in the offender’s natural environment
  • Treatment should be intensive enough to be effective
  • Treatment should reward prosocial behavior
  • Treatment should target high-risk users
  • Treatment should be matched with learning style and ability of offenders

The Myths of Coercive Addiction Treatment

One of the more commonly perpetrated misconceptions about addiction treatment is that a person cannot be successful if he or she is forced into addiction treatment. A frequently used refrain is that a person must first hit “rock-bottom” and then be self-motivated to seek treatment for rehab to be effective. Several studies have proven this incorrect.

A man putting his hand on his head because of depression. First, what is “rock-bottom?” It certainly would not mean the same thing for each person, so assuming that treatment would be ineffective until some arbitrary milestone of substance abuse is hit is highly flawed. The “rock-bottom” myth is dangerous in the fact that it may make it so those closest to a chronic substance abuser may not say anything or step in because they think it will be futile. Also, allowing someone close to you to continue to go down the wrong path may lead to unemployment, divorce, financial ruin, overdose or mental or physical illness. Rehab is most successful following an early intervention.

Another flaw in the myth of coercive treatment is that individuals do not have motivation to change. Remaining out of jail and free to enjoy life would seem to be highly motivating. If faced with a choice between incarceration or going to drug court, many would likely choose the latter. Drug courts are voluntary, as participants must agree on all requirements and consistently meet all obligations to avoid going to jail.[6]

Incarceration vs. Rehabilitation

Fundamentally, any controversy about drug courts boils down to a philosophical battle between incarceration and rehabilitation approaches. However, history and research has shown conclusively that you cannot incarcerate someone’s addiction away. You cannot expect a person to overcome addiction by simply throwing him or her in jail and not providing any other treatment. Evidence of this can be seen in the billions of dollars spent on the war on drugs, which has not resulted in any reduction of use or abuse, or in the abysmal national recidivism rate.

Many detractors of the rehabilitation approach falsely believe that it gives participants a “get out of jail free” card of sorts. While drug courts and other rehabilitative approaches do help offenders avoid jail time, they focus on reforming them into more productive members of society. Rather than having the same people go in and out of jail over and over again, the rehab approach seeks to divert offenders from continuing drug use and other delinquent behavior.

The professionals at Unity Behavioral Health have first-hand knowledge that rehab works and saves lives. We’ve helped countless patients overcome their drug abuse problems and go on to lead happy and productive lives. We know that rehab is the best approach to dealing with addiction and we are ready to help you or someone you love find the path to sobriety. To learn more, call us today at 561-708-5295.

[1] http://www.nadcp.org/learn/what-are-drug-courts/drug-court-history
[2] http://www.ndcrc.org/content/how-many-drug-courts-are-there
[3] https://www.nij.gov/topics/courts/drug-courts/Pages/work.aspx
[4] https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/ccjr/docs/articles/drugcourtsandtreatment.pdf
[5] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232487040_The_principles_of_effective_intervention_with_offenders
[6] https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41448.pdf