What Is Drug Court?

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Not so long ago, America's attitude toward drugs was "just say no," and those who didn't or couldn't say no were thrown in jail. But times have changed. The realization has dawned on the judiciary that drug addiction is a chronic, lifelong disease that people need help to beat, and that it is more cost-efficient to help addicts recover than to keep tossing them in jail. Drug courts are the judicial representations of this new outlook.

What Is a Drug Court Program?

Every state drug court is different, with variations in target population, program design and services, but they are generally based on the same elements. These include screening offenders who apply to the program (usually violent offenders are excluded), court involvement, regular drug testing and frequent meetings with the court, sanctions that start small and get larger and drug treatment, including counseling and rehab services.

People choose to apply to drug court programs, perhaps in part to avoid incarceration, but also to try to break the cycle of drug use and crime. They are mentored and supervised by people from a wide range of agencies, including the court, the prosecutor's office, public defenders, social services, law enforcement, family, friends and drug treatment professionals. The attitude is non-adversarial and cooperative, but standards are strict, drug tests are frequent and you have to adhere to the program or you can be punished, incarcerated or, ultimately, tossed out.

Read More: The Pros and Cons of a Drug Court

What Is Drug Court Graduation?

Offenders who successfully complete the program, usually 18 months or longer, attend drug court graduation, a very emotional moment for many, attended by family and supporters. On graduation, their parole may be terminated, and sometimes the charges may even be dropped or reduced.

Is drug court successful? Not 100 percent of drug court graduates stay clean and sober, but a lot more do than the percentage of regular probationers who succeed in ceasing drug use. According to the National Institute of Justice adult drug court evaluation, only 29 percent would test positive for drugs in the future versus 46 percent of regular probationers.

Drug Courts by State

Drug courts across the United States look a lot alike, but each has its own character. In California, the drug court goals are two: aiding people who have been impacted by drug addiction and reducing drug crimes. To move toward helping addicts lead clean, sober and productive lives, the court mandates drug treatment, supervises the participants rigorously, imposes sanctions for violations and supports them with individual and group therapy, addiction treatments and caring team members.

In New Jersey, drug court began in 1996 with a few local projects. These have, by now, evolved into well-defined statewide drug court programs. A program is headed by a drug court judge, but the team includes court employees, probation officers, substance abuse counselors and attorneys. This team rigorously supports the people enrolled in the program, supervising them intensively and helping them through highly structured treatment regimens. The staff members are all trained in drug and substance abuse.

What Is a Drug Court Violation?

Offenders in the program must live by certain rules, set by the drug court team. Usually these include abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but also may include various other prohibitions and requirements, like not possessing or being in the company someone possessing or using drugs, alcohol or weapons. If a participant in tests positive for drugs, he has obviously committed a drug court violation.

Drug courts tend to have graduated sanctions, lesser punishments for the first violation, harder terms for the second. For example, in California, for a first violation, the court can increase the terms of the treatment and impose more community service and fines. For a second violation, the court may again increase the terms of treatment and also impose more community service and fines. The court can also impose jail time if it concludes that the defendant is not amenable to drug treatment. The third time, the court can toss the defendant from the program and impose a jail or prison sentence.


  • Drug courts are specialized court docket programs that target non-violent offenders, juvenile offenders and parents with pending child welfare cases who have alcohol and other drug dependency problems.