June 9, 2023
Benefits of Drug Court

Reductions in Drug Usage

Because drug court programs test defendants for drug usage regularly (usually at least weekly), information regarding drug use by defendants under drug court supervision is available on an on-going basis. Nationally, the experiences of most operating drug courts indicates that the drug usage of defendants participating in drug court programs is substantially reduced while in the drug court program and, for most participants who graduate the programs (ranging from 50% - 65%), eliminated altogether. Recidivism among graduates also appears to be very low.

Reductions in Recidivism

Drug court programs are experiencing a significant reduction in recidivism among drug court participants. Depending upon the characteristics of the population targeted and the degree of social dysfunction (e.g., employment status, family situation, medical condition, etc.) they reflect, recidivism among all drug court participants in the Nation has ranged between five percent to twenty-eight percent and less than four percent for graduates.

Intensive Supervision Provided Where Little Existed Before

Defendant supervision and monitoring -- as well as treatment services -- in all of the drug court programs are significantly more immediate and intensive than would have been provided to the typical drug court defendant prior to the program. Drug court defendants come under the court's supervision very shortly after arrest and, during the initial phases of the program, are required to attend treatment sessions, undergo random urinalysis, and appear before the drug court judge regularly and frequently, decreasing in intensity only after they have demonstrated significant and consistent progress in the treatment program. Almost all of the drug courts have instituted procedures for immediate execution of bench warrants (i.e. arrest) for defendants who fail to appear at any court hearing.

Capacity to Promptly Deal with Relapse and Its Consequences

Recognizing that substance addiction is a chronic and recurring disorder, the drug court program maintains continuous supervision over the recovery process of each participant, through frequent court status hearings, urinalysis, and reports from the treatment providers to the supervising judge. Drug usage or failures to comply with other conditions of the drug court program are detected and responded to promptly. Immediate responses -- ranging from enhanced treatment services, more frequent urinalysis (daily, if necessary), imposition of community service requirements, and "shock" incarceration -- are some of the options drug court judges use to respond to program noncompliance. In appropriate situations, particularly where public safety is at issue or participants willfully fail to comply with program conditions, they are terminated from the drug court program and referred for traditional adjudication, with standard penalties applied.

Capability to Integrate Drug Treatment with Other Rehabilitation Services to Promote Long-term Recovery

In contrast, a fundamental premise of the drug court approach is that cessation of drug usage requires not only well-structured treatment services but coordinated and comprehensive programs of other rehabilitation services to address the underlying personal problems of the drug user, and promote his or her long-term re-entry into society. While sobriety is a primary objective of the drug court program, no participant can successfully complete the program without also addressing needs relating to his\her long-term rehabilitation. In addition to sobriety, common requirements of most drug court programs include: obtaining a high school or GED certificate; obtaining and/or maintaining employment; and developing mentor relationships within the community to sustain them after they leave the drug court program.

Cost Effectiveness of Drug Court Programs

Nationally, the average cost for the treatment component of a drug court program ranges between $900 and $2,200 per participant, depending upon the range of services provided. Savings in jail bed days alone have been estimated to be at least $5,000 per defendant -- which does not factor in the value of the added capability (see below) to incarcerate the more serious offenders which many jurisdictions are also deriving from these programs. Similarly, prosecutors are reporting that the drug court programs have reduced police overtime and other witness costs, as well as grand jury expenses for those jurisdictions with an indictment process, that would otherwise be required if these cases proceeded in the traditional manner. Most programs also report that a substantial percentage of participants who came into the program unemployed and on public assistance, have become employed while in the program and are now self-supporting. Many participants who are employed at the time of program entry are able to maintain their employment, in some cases conditional on their program participation. Over 200 drug-free babies have been reported born to female drug court participants while enrolled in drug court programs, thus obviating the substantial medical and social service costs (estimated at $250,000 per baby) required to care for a drug-addicted infant, let alone the societal impact.

Criminal Justice Resources Freed Up for Violent and Other Serious Criminal Cases

In addition to cost savings, all components of the justice system are reporting that the drug court programs are enabling their agencies to more efficiently allocate criminal justice resources. Staff and services, which had heretofore been consumed by the less serious but time-consuming drug cases now targeted for drug court assignment, can be directed to more serious cases and to those offenders who present greater risks to community safety. Some prosecutors and indigent defense counsel report that the case preparation and court appearance time freed up by drug court programs is equivalent to one or more FTE attorney positions. The caseloads assumed by the drug court judges have also permitted docket time of other judges to be freed up and made available for other criminal matters as well as civil cases which, in many jurisdictions, have been relegated to secondary priority because of the drug caseload. In jurisdictions where jail space has been freed up, this space is now being used to house more serious offenders or to assure that they serve their full sentences.

Benefits to Prosecutors and Police

Prosecutors and police in many of the jurisdictions which have developed drug court programs report that the Drug Court significantly enhances the credibility of the law enforcement function, provides their agencies with a more effective response to substance abuse, and is a significant alternative to the "revolving door" syndrome that has frequently resulted from the traditional case process. Defendants are no longer released back into the community -- and back using drugs -- shortly after arrest but, rather, placed in a rigorous, court supervised treatment program which, carries an important message to the community regarding the seriousness of illegal drug use. In a number of jurisdictions, prosecutor and/or police agencies have contributed asset forfeiture funds to drug programs to augment available treatment resources and have campaigned with the judiciary for community support of the drug court program.

Unequivocally, judges involved with drug court programs maintain that the drug court approach is much more effective than the traditional criminal case process for the significant number of offenders who seriously desire to address their substance addiction and turn their lives around. Most of the judges who take this position have been dealing with criminal caseloads for many years and many of them are former prosecutors.

Adapted from the "Summary Assessment of the Drug Court Experience." Prepared by the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project (A Program of the Drug Courts Program Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice)\

© 2023 Superior Court of San Mateo County