Understanding Drug Treatment Court

While drug courts have been around for several decades, many people are unaware they exist or what their purpose is. The more common questions are what is drug court all about? Or in some cases, what is drug court like for addicts?

Drug court is not something the average person would have any experience with. This type of court is different from those typically seen in movies and TV shows. The focus of drug court is less about incarceration; these courts prefer to focus on rehabilitation.

In the year 2000 alone, there were over 1.5 million arrests made in the United States. About 4 out of 5 were for drug possession alone.

Drug treatment courts focus solely on violations involving drugs. If you’ve found yourself in a position where drug court is recommending a rehab program, we have addiction specialists who can walk you through what happens next, so give us a call at 706-480-8733.


If you or someone you know is under arrest for drug possession, you may have the option to accept treatment over punishment. The benefits of treatment extend well beyond your legal situation as well, so be sure to reach out to our experts for more information.


History of Drug Treatment Courts

While New York City was the first city to implement a drug court in 1974, drug treatment courts officially came into existence in 1989. By the late 1980s, officials noticed drug users were contributing to the overpopulation of jails and prisons throughout the United States by a significant amount. They created new community-based programs in hopes of slowing the rise of drug-related cases. However, these programs did not make enough impact.

Moreover, during the 1980s and early 90s, Cook County’s Court System (Chicago) experienced an increase in drug cases. At one point, the number of cases the court was trying to manage was considered a caseload management crisis. At this point, Cook County Court System created not one but five new night drug courts. These courts would handle cases involving drugs from 4 pm until midnight. Due to this change, drug cases took less time to process. The percent of prison sentences declined, and the length of probation time decreased.

The First Drug Treatment Court

While Cook County’s system was using the drug treatment court process in the 80s and 90s, it was not officially the first drug treatment court. Dade County’s Felony Drug Court in Miami is considered the first drug treatment court in the United States.

Dade County began hearing cases in 1989 and quickly drew recognition for innovative procedures and teamwork in the courtroom. All members of the court cooperated and collaborated freely.

Furthermore, Dade County focused their process around therapeutic jurisprudence (discussed in more detail below). Essentially, the Dade County courts treated addiction-related crimes as criminal behavior outcomes from an underlying disease. They believed treatment-oriented care was essential to a positive development for both sides.

However, their goal was to stop punishing people for substance use problems. Instead, they wanted to help people find treatment. Because of this goal, the court became a broker for drug treatment services. After that, Dade County’s concept became a prototype for all future drug treatment courts in the United States.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence

The concept of therapeutic jurisprudence feels new, even though drug treatment courts are built upon the idea several decades ago. This idea made an immediate positive impact.

The goal of therapeutic jurisprudence revolves around reframing how we look at our legal system. The legal system can help people get the treatment they need.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is how rules, legal procedures, lawyers, and judges work together to create positive or negative consequences. It is about creating a way for the justice system to heal the individual. It is not about punishing the offender.

What is Drug Court For?

Drug courts are the theory that not all cases are similar. Not all patients require the same amount of resources or time. The legal system can put their time and energy into creative options with a specific court for drug offenses. Since the drug court focuses solely on drug-related cases, there are fewer delays, making it quicker and easier to get through the court system.

Even better, this system helps those who have an addiction avoid a felony conviction. Because of drug court, many people have avoided felony charges on their record. Without felony charges on paper, those with an addiction can find jobs, subsidized housing, and qualify for other federal benefits. Compare this to a standard criminal conviction that severely limits a person’s future career options.

Benefits of Drug Treatment Courts

So, what is drug court like in terms of treatment? Many people wonder if court-ordered treatment is beneficial. Is it worth the time, money, and resources? The answer is a complicated “yes and no.”

In many cases, the offender wants treatment. However, they have not had the motivation or resources to seek treatment, and they need a push to get them in. Others get court-ordered treatment but believe they do not have a problem. The results in these cases are mixed.

That said, many people believe drug treatment courts are beneficial. Researchers have been looking at the outcome and benefits of drug courts for a few decades. Through their work, we can see that those who took part in a drug treatment court program were less likely to be rearrested or have a prison sentence. After almost three years of monitoring those who’ve gone through drug court, we can see those who placed under arrest more than once went two or three times longer than those without a drug court program.

Drug treatment courts are concerned about the person with a drug problem. More often than not, Drug Treatment Courts follow their participants more closely than other community supervised programs. Even better, those in the program are less likely to have a positive drug test—and they go through tests frequently.

Throughout the drug court process, offenders appear in front of judges. Having frequent meetings with judges give the participant someone to hold them accountable.

Most importantly, these studies’ outcome shows us that those who completed a drug treatment court program are significantly less likely to return to drug use or take part in criminal behavior.

How Does Drug Court Work?

What is drug court like in terms of process? While each drug court process is slightly different, at the core, they are all the same. In general, anyone charged with purchasing or possessing illegal drugs is eligible.

Many times, the court will allow the defendant the choice to plead guilty or go to trial. If the defendant argues guilty, they must enter a court-ordered treatment program. If they go to trial, that is when they will face fines, jail time, and other legal sentences.

Prosecutors also can take drug treatment court off the table for some instances or change the potential outcomes. These are typically cases with more severe charges. When this happens, prosecutors will still offer plea deals but may withhold the option to go to treatment with no jail time.

If someone is sentenced to a drug treatment court program and does not comply, they face penalties ranging from a verbal warning to jail time.

There are three phases of treatment.

  • Detoxification
  • Stabilization
  • Aftercare

Many of the programs in question require attendance for a year or more.

One of the many benefits of drug treatment courts is the variety of help they can offer. Besides enforcing participation in a rehabilitation program, they also can help with housing and job placement.

After the participant completes their time in the program, a court counselor will recommend the judge discharge them from the program. When the judge releases this person, they will be graduates of the drug treatment court program. Many courts host a graduation ceremony. Some even allow graduates to file a petition to remove the arrest from their records.

Key Elements of Drug Treatment Courts

Supportive court proceedings involve a team of judges, attorneys, and treatment providers to protect community safety while supporting the defendants’ rights. There will be regular contact between participants and judges in status hearings. Participants are also closely monitored and subject to random drug testing. There is a close collaboration between courts, public agencies, and community services.

Defendants are neither prosecuted nor punished for their substance use problems. Instead, the court provides or brokers drug treatment and other services that help them achieve sobriety and stability in their lives. (Those with histories of violent crime, drug trafficking, or felony convictions are not in the program).

A Team Effort

The court’s procedures are non-adversarial. Led by a judge, its operations are conducted by a team that includes defense and prosecution attorneys and other court personnel and treatment providers.

  • The team appreciates the nature of addiction, relapse, and recovery, participates in a shared decision-making protocol, and fosters clients’ efforts to remain sober.
  • The judge plays a central role in monitoring participants’ progress, encouraging them to remain crime- and drug-free, and dispensing sanctions for their failure to comply with program requirements.
  • Judges and clients often meet to ensure that the judge’s presence is paramount in clients’ lives.
  • Clients participate in the program for a minimum of 12 months, according to statute, but can spend 18 months or more in the program, depending on their ability to fulfill the court’s mandates.

In the treatment stage, quality programs offer comprehensive rehab treatment and integrated treatment for those with co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Therapeutic staff may provide rewards to encourage participation in a process known as contingency management. They also check on patients regularly to assess progress, objectives, and personal goals.

A Popular Approach

In 1997, about 370 drug courts were operational or in the works in the United States. At that time, the largest numbers of drug courts were in California, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, and New York. By April 2007, more than 1,000 specialized drug courts were operational in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. A total of 41 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, have enacted legislation that explicitly supports these courts’ planning and operations.

We Can Help You

As a result of Drug Treatment Courts, many people suffering from addiction can now find treatment where they might have only found punishment. They have an abundance of resources and a system to hold them accountable throughout their recovery. This legal care model has transformed a criminal charge from punishing someone with a mental health problem to assisting in their recovery.

Maybe you want to get treatment before you end up in a situation requiring a drug treatment court. Or possibly, you’re already there and would like more information to prepare you for the process. Give us a call at 706-480-8733 today. Our professionals have the knowledge and resources to help you get on the right path.

Written by Krystina Wagner

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