Drug Court: A Comprehensive Guide to Court-Ordered Treatment

Last Updated: October 21, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

In the last few decades, unlawful substance use has become a norm of a certain portion of every society. Anxiety, stress, materialism, moral degradation, and lack of proper guidance have caused a rise in the number of substance abuse cases. In the past, this problem remained with people going through a hard time and needed an escape from reality, or they were suffering from some painful disease and required potent analgesics. In this age, however, recreational substances use has become a fashion statement, and it has become too easy to acquire and use narcotics or alcohol unlawfully without knowing of side effects and social consequences associated with this obsession.

Now that the problem is an internationally acknowledged one, a question arises “how should drug abuse be controlled?” Many solutions have been proposed based on psychotherapy, religion, moral support, and force. However, similar to every criminal activity or dangerous act, drug abuse was also controlled by implementing laws related to this problem. Drug courts were introduced at the beginning of the 19th century to instill fear in drug addicts.

Drug Court: An Overview

Drug court is a program within the judicial system that deals with non-violent criminal cases involving illicit substance users. The system was put in place to rehabilitate and reform offenders with addiction problems.

A state taxpayer’s return on the upfront investment in drug courts is substantial. They are a more cost effective method of dealing with drug problems than either probation or prison.United Nations Report

It is a judicial trial court that handles cases of addicts as long as no violent activity is involved. This court is set up with the goal of reforming and rehabilitating the offender having substance control problems. Penalties are easy to pay, and if the person has been ordered to do jail time, then it is not for any long period. This court system actually involves many other systems that collaborate to bring about a change in the life of the person being tried.

Many Countries Around the World Have Drug Courts. Some of These Countries Include:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • New Zealand
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Jamaica
  • Cayman Islands
  • Barbados
  • Bermuda
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Bahamas
  • Chile
  • Dominican Republic
  • Panama
  • Costa Rica
  • Argentina
  • Columbia
  • Peru
  • Ecuador
From a sample of 17,000 drug court graduates nationwide, within one year of program graduation, only 16.4% had been arrested and charged with a felony offense.U.S. Department of Justice

Drug Court Statistics

Systems differ according to the customs and laws of the country. The United States special drug courts have been functional for over 20 years, with about 2,500 drug courts active in the country. According to drug court statistics, at least 120,000 citizens in the U.S. get help through drug court effectiveness and intervention.

A study on drug court effectiveness found that 84 percent of individuals coerced into the drug courts program were neither arrested nor charged with any significant crime in the initial year after they graduated from recovery programs. In addition, according to drug court statistics, it was observed that national drug courts greatly reduce crime rates in the country.

It costs approximately $8,000 Canadian dollars per annum to provide substance abuse treatment to the Toronto Drug Treatment Court participant and $45,000 to incarcerate the same participant for one year... Only 11.6% of those who complete the drug rehab court program run into trouble again with the law.United Nations Report

How do drug courts work, and what are some standard drug court rules and regulations? The essence of this national institution of law is specifically to tackle drug-related non-violent crimes from its foundations and to proffer a sustainable solution by penalization via recovery programs, rather than incarceration, for those that meet the requirements.

The Video Below Provides Information on Drug Court Rules and Regulations:

What are the Types of Drug Courts?

There are different types of drug courts designed to deal with certain types of offenders. The different types of drug courts include:

  • Adult Drug Court
  • Juvenile Drug Court
  • Family Drug Court
  • Veterans Treatment Court
  • Reentry Courts
  • DWI Courts

Components of a Drug Court and Judicial System

The drug court system differs from the traditional criminal court in many ways. In this type of court, all the authorities, be it a judge or a defense counselor, all work together to devise the best plan for the person involved in the trial. The components of a tribunal that are involved in a case are:

  • Judges
  • Prosecutors
  • Defense Counselors
  • Probation officers
  • Treatment controllers

Do They Do Drug Testing at the Court?

The eligibility of a candidate for the program is determined in court by the judge, and the prosecutors do initial testing in front of the judge, which decides whether the person is the culprit of the charge or not. On the spot, testing is done by fast processing devices such as breathalyzers, blood testing devices. All the involved parties are present in the court. Later testing and monitoring are done by the probation officer or treatment officials. But weekly hearings are held throughout treatment where a judge reviews the person’s clearance status and the program’s success.

Woman takes blood test for a drug court.

Why Does the Court Order Drug Tests?

The court orders tests to determine whether the person being convicted is the culprit and if that person is eligible for the program. Initial tests are administered in the presence of prosecutors, judges, and other court officials using devices that provide quick results.

General Scheme of Drug Court

The Method of Working With a Court Is Simple Yet Effective:

  • The courts provide treatment for all kinds of substances and alcohol, and the treatment plan is devised according to the need.
  • Abstinence or quitting is monitored by using the screening tests or alcohol tests performed after some interval.
  • If the participant is found to be non-compliant, there are strategies that decide the course of action according to the level of non-compliance. Relapse is considered a normal action, but non-compliance is a criminal act.
  • Attending court for judicial proceedings is an important part of the plan, but if the person involved fails to show up, then there are penalties for that.
  • The effectiveness of the plan is regularly monitored.
  • Addicts are educated and made aware of the effects of drugs or alcohol on them, their families, and society, and they are made to interact with other people in rehab to encourage.
I'm seeing something real, something that has changed people's lives. There is hope.Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Kay Cobb, speaking to Drug Court graduates in Brookhaven, Mississippi

Types of Drug Courts Throughout the World

There are many different Drug Court Models made for different offender types:

  • Adult Drug Court – A special court docket for drug-abusing individuals who used to be respectable working citizens of society, which function to reduce chances of recidivism and ensure their rehabilitation under judicial supervision.
  • Juvenile Drug Court – It is a docket within the juvenile justice system where cases related to minor crimes under substance influence are directed. The youth is made to comply with the treatment plan, and the team handling the case meets up many times during the case period and discusses the problems faced by the person and their solution.
  • Family Drug Court – Family Dependency Treatment Court ensures the safety, betterment, and wellbeing of the children in a family where parental substance abuse is known. Children are relocated to safer homes by a combined effort of court and child protection organizations where they can be saved from neglect and abuse. In the meanwhile, parents are brought to abstinence programs.
  • DWI CourtsDriving while impaired (DWI) is a serious offense and a threat to road safety; separate courts deal with this problem. Offenders are given penalties, warnings and are closely monitored for a while.
  • Reentry Courts – These courts help the ex-addicts to become sober and respectable citizens of society after quitting drugs. Reintegration into society is the hardest part, but these courts help the parolees in finding jobs, housing and helping them in taking family and social responsibilities.
  • Veterans Treatment Court – Military veterans or even employed military personnel has an inclination towards using mentally stimulating substances. They have separate courts where mental health program is integrated with the justice system to ensure sobriety and mental stability in such individuals.

Drug Court Program Requirements

The general goal behind the drug courts program is to provide an easier way to break the cycle of alcohol and substance addiction. The length of the program may run between one to two years, depending on a number of factors. Defendants who are qualified for the program are mandated to go through a stabilization phase, after which the program phases begin.

Stabilization Period

Stabilization lasts 4 to 6 weeks, during which the defendant will be evaluated to observe how he or she reacts to the treatment and the program in general. The defendant is required to:

  • Avail themselves for substance and alcohol breath screening at any time whatsoever
  • Attend and complete an acceptance interview with the coordinator of the treatment court
  • Complete a mandatory evaluation for substance abuse
  • Give permission for home visits by an assigned probation officer
  • Appear at courthouse sessions every week
  • Observe a 10 pm daily curfew
  • Be present at the orientation class
  • Be present at scheduled self-help meetings as often as required
  • Complete a formal application for funding needs such as Medicaid

At the end of the evaluation, the court decides, based on the participation so far, if the defendant would proceed with the drug courts program. The program is made up of three phases; each of them is spread over a period of 12-24 weeks in this order:

Phase I

This is the early recovery stage, which is focused on full induction into the treatment program and providing substantial support through this Phase. In this Phase, participants will allow the following:

  • Be available for an unannounced home visit at any time of the day by law enforcement personnel
  • Be available for the prescribed inpatient\outpatient addiction treatment
  • Be available for the screening tests at least three times weekly
  • Attend self-help meetings weekly, as mandated
  • Complete assessment on employment/education experience
  • Be available for physical examinations inclusive of dentals and others
  • Observe a 10 pm daily curfew
  • Attend appointments and screenings for mental health and general treatment
  • Be present at skill development and education programs

Phase II

This Phase helps to improve decision-making abilities and strengthens the resolve to live without alcohol or addictive substances. The program also encourages the attendant to get involved in skill development and employment programs. Participants will allow the following:

  • Visits by law enforcement personnel
  • Attending counseling weekly
  • Be available for the screening as often as three times weekly
  • Attend employment and educational classes
  • Attend physical checkups as required
  • Be present at all programs and counseling sessions

Phase III

This transition phase focuses on maintaining sobriety and relapse prevention, with emphasis on reintegration into society by means of employment and education training.

Participants are mandated to:

  • Allow unplanned visits by law personnel
  • Report to the courthouse as often as once every three weeks
  • Attend victim/offender mediation programs as required
  • Be available for tests twice a week
  • Complete community service as mandated
  • Attend all center programs as directed maintain sobriety for 12 months
The court (in Australia) offers a high level of support and supervision in an endeavor to break the cycle of drug dependency, the commission of a crime to finance the dependency, imprisonment and a return to the drug dependency upon release from prison.United Nations Report

Pros and Cons of Drug Court System

From the above discussion, it might appear that this judicial system is the perfect answer to the substance abuse problem, but there are many problems with this system as well.

Positive Aspects

  • Reduction in crime rate as many addicts get dragged into the crime world by their addiction, dealers, or other addicts. Helping them at the beginning of their addiction stops them before such problems start.
  • Judicial supervision and fear of penalties and arrest due to substance abuse or recidivism ensure compliance to a great extent. According to an estimate, people who complete their treatment remain sober and arrest-free for longer periods of time.
  • Taxpayers’ money can be saved when the money spent on dealing with substance abuse problems is compared to the amount spent on crime control and criminals.
  • Drug courts help rehabilitate people who suffered previously because of addiction and restore families who had been torn apart due to this curse.

Cons

  • There is no standardized strategy, planning, and service that differs from state to state, even within the same country. People migrating from one place to another suffer because of this.
  • Consideration of personal habits is minimum; if a person is hesitant in taking any test or suffers from anxiety, or cannot attend court due to some personal reason, they might get sent to jail because of the doubt.
  • Corruption in the system and personal grudges against someone can affect a person’s life as there is no reliable system of accountability of authorities.
  • In their hurry to get a person back into society, the officials might neglect the level of stress the person can take, leading to recidivism due to stress.

Why Are Drug Courts Successful?

There are numerous testimonies, information, and statistics on the effect of DTCs and their effective support system. A major success factor is the effectiveness of the judicial system and interdisciplinary teams. Some of the success factors include:

  • Strong judicial influence and leadership
  • Full documentation and consent before admission
  • Frequent evaluations and willingness to participate
  • Sustained DTC funding
  • Sanctions for non-compliance and incentives for compliance
  • Clear eligibility criteria
Drug courts are an effective and cost-efficient way to help non-violent drug offenders commit to a rigorous drug treatment program in lieu of prison. By leveraging the coercive power of the criminal justice system, drug courts can alter the behavior of non-violent, low-level drug offenders through a combination of judicial supervision, case management, mandatory drug testing, and treatment to ensure abstinence from drugs, and escalating sanctions.Former U.S. President George W. Bush

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Page Sources

  1. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What Are Drug Courts? 2018. https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/treatment/drug-courts/index.html.
  2. U.S. Department of Justice. Drug Courts. 2018. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/238527.pdf.
  3. National Institute of Justice. Do Drug Courts Work? Findings From Drug Court Research. 2018. https://www.nij.gov/topics/courts/drug-courts/Pages/work.aspx.
  4. Office of Justice Programs. Drug Courts. 2018. https://www.nij.gov/topics/courts/drug-courts/Pages/welcome.aspx.
  5. New York State Unified Court System. Drug Court Program Requirements, https://ww2.nycourts.gov/courts/6jd/broome/binghamton/drug/reqs.shtml
  6. Office of National Drug Control Policy. Drug Courts. A Smart Approach to Criminal Justice https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp/ondcp-fact-sheets/drug-courts-smart-approach-to-criminal-justice
  7. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Drug Court, 2012 https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/drug-court
  8. United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, DRUG TREATMENT COURTS WORK! https://www.unodc.org/pdf/drug_treatment_courts_flyer.pdf
  9. CASA of Arizona, DRUG COURTS, https://www.azcourts.gov/casa/Training/TrainingCourses/DrugCourtspg2.aspx

Published on: August 16th, 2016

Updated on: October 21st, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.