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How Drug Courts Work for Addiction Treatment

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 26, 2019

Many individuals who face charges for committing a drug-related crime often do not get the help that they need to properly overcome addiction. Drug courts work with these individuals to help them get into treatment in lieu of jail time so that they can begin their journey to a life of sobriety.

Few individuals facing drug-related, non-violent charges are able to access the kind of treatment needed to address an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Instead, these individuals end up convicted and jailed without treatment. Equally troubling, many individuals suffer from co-occurring mental disorders and conditions often exacerbated by incarceration. Judicial professionals in the 1980s saw a need for a more compassionate approach to dealing with these individuals. Criminalization of drug-related offenses was doing little to treat the substance use disorder, and further, recidivism rates were high following release.

In 1989, a group of pioneering justice professionals opened the first drug court to those in need of addiction treatment in place of a prison sentence. Today, there are nearly 3,000 drug courts operating within the United States and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. There are many types of drug courts effectively targeting the needs of specific populations, including adult drug courts, juvenile drug courts, and DWI courts, among others, however, they share the common goal of treating the drug or alcohol addiction to rehabilitate and empower the individual.

Drug Court Model

In general, drug courts incorporate a level of judicially supervised treatment along with regular progress assessments, identify the treatment needs of individuals as soon as possible following an arrest, and apply rewards and sanctions in holding an individual accountable for their actions, while applying regular drug testing.

A drug court judge differs from a normal judge in that they’ve had special training in handling individuals suffering with a substance use disorder and understand addiction is not a choice. This awareness allows for a judicial process outside of the crime committed. A judge is involved with the individual from the beginning, through graduation of the program, assessing and addressing the underlying issues contributing to the addiction or addictive behaviors, while also determining an appropriate level of drug rehabilitation and monitoring the progress of the individual.

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Addiction Treatment Types Available

Drug court participants have access to different types of addiction treatment services including residential, intensive, outpatient group and individual therapy, drug education, 12-step or self-help, and relapse prevention. These options may be entirely available, or available in part depending on the location of the drug court and proximity to treatment services.

Ultimately, the goal of drug court is to help a person regain control of their lives and participation within society through active participation in a drug treatment program. For many, this can result in a reduction in sentencing or a case dismissal. However, not everyone sentenced on a drug-related charge has access to a drug court and in some cases, access to a drug court does not guarantee some of the addiction treatment types mentioned earlier. Working with the judge, individuals who require residential treatment when it is not regionally available may have other options.

Drug Court Treatment Types May Include:

Effectiveness Of Drug Courts In Reducing Recidivism

The effectiveness of drug courts sometimes depends on the aforementioned availability of residential addiction treatment facilities. By the numbers, those entering drug court are more likely to be abusing either cocaine/crack, methamphetamine, or alcohol. Access to a residential treatment or intensive therapy for these individuals is essential in increasing long-term recovery and reducing recidivism rates.

One study examining the effectiveness of drug courts on recovery rates compared drug court participants with similar drug offenders not exposed to drug court. Those who participated in an evidence-based drug court treatment program were more likely to remain in recovery at 12 to 18 months outside of the treatment period than those who were sentenced to prison.

Other studies indicate a reduction in criminal behavior following treatment, when compared with similar prison populations. Research also indicates graduates of a drug court program are more likely to be employed full time.

A 2002 study showed a difference in drug court participation and graduation and participation without graduating, with the rearrest rates being lower among the graduate population. Rearrests at 24 months were 19 percent among the graduate group, and 37 percent among the non-program participant group. The study also highlighted that individuals in the graduate group were less likely to have had a prior arrest than the non-participant group and the non-graduate group, although this is likely related to their eligibility status for the program.

A 2004 US Department of Justice annual report suggests drug courts have a significant impact on recidivism. The broader study, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, indicated out of 17,000 drug court graduates and study participants, fewer than 30 percent had been arrested at the two-year mark, compared to 67 percent among the comparable prison population group.

Drug Courts Connect People With Addiction Treatment

A referral to drug court is usually made for individuals suffering with a substance use disorder 1) If the drug court is available and 2) As long as the individual is not accused of a related violent crime. A judicial professional will oversee an individual’s case and assess the severity of the addiction to match need to availability of an appropriate level of care.

That said, programs are still developing to meet a growing need. Of the nearly two million drug offenders who might meet the criteria for drug court, fewer than 150,000 have access to the nearly 3,000 courts. Fortunately, attitudes toward addiction are changing. Awareness of the need for appropriate treatment measures to address both the addiction and corresponding issues relating to the addiction is one way to reduce the stigma, and improve outcomes for drug-exposed individuals.

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