Not only do millions of Americans spend time incarcerated due to drug offenses, a high proportion of violent crimes involve the use of alcohol or other addictive substances. While incarceration is “effective” for people with substance abuse disorders in that it may stop people from using while jailed, this type of abstinence from substance abuse rarely lasts once a person completes a prison sentence and goes back to his or her previous situation.

The issue of drug treatment and law enforcement is complex. People who commit crimes should be held accountable, and yet only a small percentage of prisoners who meet clinical criteria for substance abuse disorder actually receive treatment for it. Drug courts are an innovative approach, offering alternatives to incarceration or lighter sentences to people who agree to complete a drug rehab program.

How Drug Courts Work

Drug courts in different jurisdictions may target different populations and use different resources. However, these programs are usually managed by a team that includes law enforcement (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys) as well as treatment specialists, like social workers and drug rehab professionals. Family members of defendants are also encouraged to participate in hearings and other events like drug rehab graduation.

Most adult drug courts use programs designed to curb criminal recidivism, reduce drug use, and encourage defendants toward full recovery so they can lead healthy lives that do not include the types of activities that will land them back in the criminal court system. Programs include risk and needs assessment, monitoring, graduated incentives, drug rehab, and follow-up. Treatment of co-occurring mental health conditions is also part of many drug court programs.

How Common Are Drug Courts?

Currently, there are over 3,100 drug courts in the US. About half are targeted toward adults and half toward juveniles. Family drug courts specifically target defendants with pending child welfare cases, with the goal of minimizing separation from family and maximizing the chances of recovering from substance abuse disorders and developing solid parenting skills.

Some drug courts specifically target adults convicted of DWI, and a growing number of drug courts are for veterans. Additionally, over 100 tribal drug courts existed as of mid-2015.

What Addicts and Families Should Know About Drug Court

Drug rehab


Drug courts recognize the tremendous importance of support from families of drug court participants. In many cases, family needs and services are part of the drug court plan, so that a healthier home life can be established and further reduce chances of reoffending. Family members are encouraged to participate throughout the drug court process, and most drug courts develop information packets for family members to help them support their loved one in the drug court system. Indeed, family counseling participation is incentivized in many drug courts in cases where family involvement is appropriate.

The Effectiveness of Drug Courts: What Is Known So Far

A 10-year study of participants in the Multnomah County Drug Court in Oregon found that five or more years later, re-arrests were lower for drug court participants than for comparable drug offenders who did not go through drug court. The National Institute of Justice Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation also reported significantly lower drug use and criminal offending during and after drug court participation. Drug court participants were also less likely to test positive for drugs than their counterparts in the traditional court system.

Drug court programs incorporating drug rehab are more expensive than moving an offender through the regular court system. However, due to lower rates of re-offending, drug courts ultimately save around $6,000 per offender overall compared to long-term costs associated with reoffending. Similar positive outcomes have been measured in juvenile drug courts, which have been shown to have better outcomes than both traditional juvenile courts and intensive outpatient treatment programs.

Are drug courts the answer to the addiction epidemic in the US? Unfortunately, there is no one answer that can single-handedly “fix” the drug problem in America. Drug courts do, however, represent a better alternative for many drug offenders because of the emphasis they place on drug rehab and long-term recovery. Because these programs are proving to have a return on investment, more jurisdictions may look toward establishing drug courts in the future.

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