The Drug Court Programs: Historical Development


Drug courts refer to specialized types of courts that deal with cases of nonviolent offenders who have been incarcerated for having abused drugs (Franco, 2011). Before an offender gets enrolled in a drug court program, he/she must undergo a drug test and rigorous supervision by court officials in order to ascertain compliance with the program. In case an offender fails to obey the program’s requirements, the judge can impose sanctions on such an offender. The first drug court was started in Florida in the late 1980s following a dramatic rise in drug-related incarcerations. The criminal activities committed by such offenders was linked to use of drugs and as such, the criminal justice systems sought to set aside special courts to deal with this special group of offenders who were nonetheless nonviolent, not to mention that most of them were first time offenders.

The policy of drug courts was to minimize the use and availability of drugs. They were soon adopted by the community, local and state authorities. Drug courts are aimed at reducing drugs and alcohol problems through the use of formal theories of drug abuse (Gonzales, Schofiled & Schmitt, 2006). In addition, drug courts also use of therapeutic tools to enable participants to enhance their cognitive skills. Over the years, drug courts have grown in both type and number and today, we even have juvenile. In a bid to motivate participants to abide by the rules of drug court programs, court officials offer them incentives like fewer court appearances. Other participants are also exempted from undergoing numerous drug tests

The following essay is an attempt to explore the drug court programs and their historical development. In addition, the reasons behind the formation of this program shall be examined, along with the individuals that they are meant to support. Also, the social implications and effectiveness of the programs shall also be examined.

How did the Drug Courts Program come to be?

Drug treatment courts (DTCs) refer to “specialized court dockets, or portions of judges’ calendars of cases, that generally target nonviolent offenders with substance-abuse problems” (Franco, 2011). Drug courts were started at the local and state level in the 1980s in a bid to curb increasing cases of incarceration among drug offenders (Franco 2011). According to Sanford and Arrigo (2009), drug treatment courts were started in 1989 as a way of dealing with the increased drug cases.

Judge Herbert M. Klein is credited with having started the drug courts movement in his capacity as the chief judge of the11th judicial circuit in Florida (Wiseman, 2005). The Supreme Court of Florida was faced with the risk of losing federal funding because it had failed to comply with a federal mandate that required all supreme courts to reduce the population of inmates. To avoid this scenario, Judge Klein was directed by the Supreme Court of Florida to attend to the problem (Wiseman, 2005). He was granted a one year leave to attend to this problem. During this time, he conducted numerous research studies which indicated that most members of the target population were in prison due to drug-related offenses. In addition, it emerged that the underlying problem of drug addiction had seen the target population frequently rubbing shoulders with the criminal justice system. This research culminated in the establishment of the first drug court program in 1989 in Dade County, Florida.

The Miami DTC was among the pioneer drug courts. Its formation was aimed at addressing the problem of drug addiction, other than dealing with retributive punishment (Fulkerson, 2009). Drug courts offered offenders counseling, acupuncture, and treatment. In addition, offenders were also introduced to vocational and educational programs (Fulkerson, 2009). Compared with the conventional system of dealing with drug addition, the DTC has proved to be both effective and responsive in dealing with the increased cases of drug abuse and addiction in the American society (Fulkerson, 2009). Consequently, the DTC has grown into a ‘movement’ of more than 2400 drug courts in the US alone (Huddleston and Marlowe (2011). Over the last five years, Drug Courts have increased by 40%. According to Mitchell et al. (2012), the movement consisted of 2,459 Drug Courts as of December 2009.

What prompted the formation of the drug courts program?

In the 1980s, there was a dramatic increase in the use of such drugs as crack and powder cocaine, and this resulted in a rise in the reported cases of violence linked to the illicit drug market (Franco, 2011). In an effort to curb this vice, Congress set up severe punishments for drug offences, such as compulsory minimum prison sentences based on a given quantity of drugs. Drug offenders were faced with more stringent penalties and this saw the population of drug offenders incarcerated increase dramatically. At the same time, drug offenders tended to get longer periods of incarceration than was the case before.

Prior to the establishment of drug courts, the US judicial system was faced with so many drug cases that the treatment and judicial systems were already overwhelmed (Cooper, 2003). As such, the drug court was designed with the intention of minimizing the rate of criminal recidivism. This would be achieved by enrolling drug offenders to drug treatment services in which officials from the judicial system would make their direct intervention as a way of helping deal with the issue of drug addiction. In addition, drug courts were also established in order to provide an effective channel of supervising defendants facing drug possession charges. This approach was also intended to enhance effective judicial supervision of the offenders, in addition to promoting public safety (Cooper, 2003).

According to Fulkerson, “DTC recognizes the fact of ‘addiction as a chronic disease’” (Fulkerson, 2009). Therefore, the creation of the drug court was with a view to addressing this problem. DTCs were formed with the aim of disrupting the recurring patterns of criminal behavior, drug addiction, and bringing back life to an individual free of crime and drugs (Fulkerson, 2009). In addition, DTCs were also meant to make society safer, assist a drug addict accept his/her responsibility, as well as to repair any harm that could have been brought about by drug addiction (Fulkerson 2009). Franco (2011) notes that the drug court movement acted as a useful pointer to the crucial departure from emphasis by law enforcement officers on reducing the use of drugs by minimizing drugs availability, to efforts geared towards minimizing demand for illegal drugs by attending to the underlying problem of addiction.

What are the requirements of the drug courts program?

Eligibility to the drug court program tends to differ from one court jurisdiction to another. However, according to Mitchell et al (2012) in most judicial jurisdictions, eligibility to the drug court programs is mainly restricted to non-violent drug offenders. Judicial system officials undertake the criminal history of the non-violent drug offender. This helps to identify whether the defendant is abusing drugs. Self-reporting is also admissible (Franco, 2010). Non-violent offenders refer to offenders committing an offense for the first time. As noted earlier, eligibility to the drug court program is normally restricted partly due to the fact that such a criterion is crucial in ensuring that drug courts get the required funding from the federal government (Mitchell et al., 2012). Some of the criteria used to exclude participants include defendant with documented serious mental illnesses and offenders who have been convicted more than three times. Offenders facing drug trafficking charges are also excluded (Cooper, 2003). Majority of drug courts have now increased the range of criminal histories permissible for one to be considered eligible for the program. According to Cooper (2003), participant eligibility is down to below 5% for offenders with no history of criminal charges.

According to Franco (2010), in order for an offender to be considered eligible for admission to a drug court program, there must be evidence that he/she has abused drugs. However, participants are not coerced to take part in a drug court program, but do so out of their own volition. Offenders are normally required to sign an agreement that they shall honor the rules of drug court program (Franco, 2010). In case a drug offender does not fulfill all of the established eligibility requirements, he/she is excluded.

Who is the drug courts program supposed to affect/protect/serve?

Majority of the localities and states in the US have in the last 2 decades embraced drug courts in order to not only reduce drug-related crimes, but also to minimize recidivism (Franco, 2011). A study by Huddleston and Marlowe (2011) indicates that most participants of Drug Court are Caucasians, representing 62% of the offenders. The same report also shows that African-Americans represent nearly 21% of all the Drug Court participants countrywide (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011).

Majority of the court programs target nonviolent, low-level offenders. However, most states and localities have since relaxed their rules in order to accommodate drug offenders charged with serious crimes into the program (Franco, 2011). Initially, the main targets of drug courts were the illicit substance abusers. However, this has since changed as we now have drug courts targeting repeat drug offenders and juvenile illicit drug abusers as well (Mitchell et al., 2012).

Cooper (2003) observes that an increasingly larger number of drug courts are targeting chronic defendants and recidivists who have been using drugs for prolonged periods of time. The author further notes that more than 50% of drug court participants have been arrested in the past for charges linked to the use of drugs (Cooper, 2003). However, in the past several years, drug courts have increased the range of offenses that they previously targeted. Even as nearly all drug courts have in past mainly dealt with drug possession charges, in the recent years, an increasingly larger number of drug courts have been seen to also target drug-related property offenses/theft, credit card/check, prostitution, prescription forgeries., as well as driving under the influence of alcohol (Cooper, 2003). Other persons who are eligible for the Drug Court program include property owner who have fallen victim to drug addicts, individual assaulted by drug addicts, as well as individuals who have sustained injuries while driving under drugs influence. Other indirect victims include in the program include employers and family member of the addicts, as well as taxpayers who have to pay for social costs (Fulkerson, 2009).

Is the drug courts program effective?

Available evidence in literature on drug court programs show that drug courts are important to the judicial system in that they minimize cases of drug abuse among participants (Franco, 2011). In addition, such programs have also proved useful in reducing recidivism. Franco (2011) further notes that drug court programs are feasible intervention strategies that the judicial system can use to reduce the demand for drugs among drug-abuse offenders (Franco, 2011). According to Franco (2010), “drug courts are considered by many to be one of the most effective strategies for reducing recidivism and criminal activity among participants in the program and for providing an alternative to incarceration” (Franco, 2010). Several studies show that most participants of drug courts end up reducing drug usage. Results of an urinalyses test conducted by Cooper (2003) to determine the usage of drugs among participants of a drug court program revealed positive urinalyses of less than 20% in comparison with conventional, non drug court participants who recorded significantly higher rates. In addition, drug courts are characterized by relatively high retention rates of between 60% and 80%, relative to retention rates recorded by participants taking part in nondrug court programs (Cooper (2003).

Drug courts have also been shown to significantly reduce recidivism rates for participants. Mitchell. et al. (2012) opine that the most effective drug courts are those that utilize sanctions and rewards to motivate offenders to transform their behavior. Such courts are also likely to stress on offender rehabilitation in place of speedy case processing (Mitchell et al., 2012). In their study, Mitchell et al. (2012) report on the findings of seven meta-analysis studies that had been carried out by independent scientific teams to determine the effectiveness of Adult Drug Courts. Based on the findings, all the studies concluded that Adult Drug Court considerably decreases crime as evidenced by lesser technical offenses and fewer arrests for new crimes.

On the other hand, Mitchell et al. (2012) argue that although drug courts have become quite popular in the past two decades, their effectiveness in terms of minimizing recidivism has remained unclear because a number of issues are yet to be adequately addressed. For example, even as many drug court evaluations indicate low recidivism rates among participants in comparison with participants, Mitchell et al. (2012) point out that much of this research is still methodically weak.


Drug courts were originally formed as a way of dealing with the increased cases of drug-related crimes committed by first time nonviolent offenders who had committed criminal activities under the influence of drugs. The justice system was already stretched in terms of resources and many state risked having their federal financial resource allocation reduced for failing to deal with the increased drug cases. Since their inception in the late 1980s, drug courts have gained immense popularity in the criminal justice system. This has seen the number of participants increase tremendously and there has been reports that there have been quite effective in reducing recidivism and drug-related crimes. At the same time, drug court have also expanded in terms of type and scope and today, we even have juvenile drug courts while drug courts cover a wide range of offenses. Over the years, the retention rates of participants in drug courts have been seen to increase while the justice system has made significant savings especially in regard to the use of probation services and jail space.

Reference List

Cooper, C.S. (2003). Drug courts: current issues and future perspectives. Substance Use & Misuse, 38(11), 1671–1711.

Franco, C. (2010). Drug courts: background, effectiveness and policy issues for Congress. Darby, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing Company.

Franco, C. (2011). Drug courts: backround, effectiveness and policy issues for Congress. Journal of Current Issues in Crime, Law and Law Enforcement, 4(1/2), 18-26.

Fulkerson, A. (2009). The drug treatment court as a form of restorative justice. Contemporary Justice Review, 12(3), 253-267.

Gonzales, A.R., Schofield, R.B., & Schmitt, G.R. (2006). Drug courts: the second decade. Web.

Huddleston, W., & Marlowe, D. B. (2011). Painting the current picture: a national report on drug courts and other problem-solving court programs in the United States. Web.

Mitchell, O., Wilson, D.B., Eggers, A., & MacKenzie, D.L. (2012). Assessing the effectiveness of drug courts on recidivism: A meta-analytic review of traditional and non-traditional drug courts. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40, 60–71.

Wiseman, C. M. (2005). Drug courts: framing policies to ensure success. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49(3), 235-238.

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