Drug Courts in the United StatesAvoiding Jail, Improving Lives

Drug courts provide treatment and other supportive services to nonviolent drug offenders with substance abuse issues. Since 1989, these programs have helped thousands avoid jail, overcome addiction and lead healthy lives. The effectiveness of treatment courts has led to their implementation in every state in the country.

Two Options

The best day of Kaitlyn Smith’s life was also her worst day.

Police officers pulled over the Flagler County, Florida, resident in 2014. They searched her car and found a variety of drugs, including cocaine and sleeping pills. She was arrested, as her infant slept in the backseat, and charged with three felony counts of drug possession.

“I owe my recovery to drug court. It saved my life.”

Kaitlyn Smith, drug court graduate

The situation, Smith said, was life-changing.

“I am so thankful I was arrested that day,” Smith, 27, told DrugRehab.com. “If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

A judge gave Smith two options. The first: go to jail. Her second choice was to enter drug court, a diversion program allowing nonviolent drug offenders to receive treatment for substance abuse problems.

Smith knew she could use the help.

She started using painkillers after a car accident in 2012. This led to an addiction to Lortab, a prescription opioid containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone. Years of domestic abuse and the stress of single motherhood exacerbated her drug use.

When her supply ran dry, she turned to the streets for her fix. She eventually began experimenting with other substances. Around this time, she lost communication with her family and friends, and her health deteriorated. Her life revolved around substance use.

Kaitlyn Smith

After a drug arrest, Kaitlyn Smith spent three years in a drug court program in Flagler County, Florida.

Smith entered drug court, a decision she called a no-brainer. She spent three years in treatment, during which her physical and mental health drastically improved. In January 2017, she graduated from the program. Today, she is healthy, sober and happy.

“I owe my recovery to drug court,” said Smith. “It saved my life.”

Drug courts are designed to reduce crime and drug use, restore lives and strengthen families. But do they really work? Research, statistics and firsthand accounts paint a clear picture of the benefits. And jurisdictions across the United States have taken notice.

court house

A New Approach

In 1989, a team of justice professionals established the nation’s first drug court in Miami-Dade County after expressing dissatisfaction with high recidivism rates. This approach integrated treatment into the criminal justice system, allowing offenders with drug problems to get the help they need.

Drug courts comprise treatment, individual therapy, 12-step meetings, random urinalyses and court appearances. Many courts require participants to find a job or complete volunteer work while in treatment.

Programs generally last between six months and one year. During this time, individuals undergo weekly drug testing and monitoring. They periodically appear before a judge who reviews their progress. Participants who follow rules and show improvements may receive incentives. But a judge may punish those who fail a drug test or refuse to fulfill program obligations.

Chris Deutsch, director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, told DrugRehab.com that a criminal record affects a person’s ability to secure a job, loan or housing. To avoid this, courts dismiss charges upon graduation from treatment court.

Deutsch also stressed that these courts provide a new way to combat recidivism.

“We have tried to incarcerate our way out of problems,” said Deutsch. “But what we saw was that people who don’t get treatment will continue to use and reoffend.”

Research supports this claim. A report published in The New England Journal of Medicine examined more than 30,000 prison records for inmates released from the Washington State Department of Corrections from July 1999 to December 2003.

“People who don’t get treatment will continue to use and reoffend.”

Chris Deutsch, director of communications for the NADCP

The study found that the risk of death among former inmates was more than 12 times that of other state residents during the first two weeks after release, with drug overdose being the leading cause of death.

Drug courts work to end this cycle. Instead of imprisoning drug offenders, these programs give them an opportunity to engage in evidence-based rehab. Treatment courts also offer resources to help graduates maintain sobriety.

Who Is Eligible for Drug Courts?

The advent of treatment courts has created a national trend. As of May 2017, more than 3,100 drug courts operated in the United States. Among those were 1,558 adult courts, some of which also cater to people with alcohol problems.

Other treatment courts provide services to juveniles, veterans and those with co-occurring disorders. Additionally, family drug courts cater to parents with substance abuse problems who face child abuse or neglect charges in civil court.

Drug Courts in the United States, 2017
Type of drug court Number
Adult 1,558
Juvenile 409
Family 312
Veterans 306
Designated DWI 284
Tribal 138
Co-occurring Disorders 70
Re-entry 29
Federal District 27
Federal Veterans 6
Campus 3
Total 3,142

Source: National Institute of Justice

People with substance abuse problems or those accused of drug-related crimes participate in drug courts. These crimes could include drug possession or sales, actions that increase the risk of drug abuse, or offenses indirectly related to drug use, such as stealing money to pay for illegal substances.

Eligibility for treatment court varies by location. Typically, offenders charged with drug possession or a nonviolent crime associated with substance use will qualify for drug court. These individuals must have tested positive for drugs or shown a history of substance abuse at the time of arrest.

Florida drug courts, also called pretrial intervention programs, accept first-time nonviolent offenders with no prior felony convictions.

They must have been charged with one of the following:

  • Possessing or purchasing a controlled substance (second or third degree felony)
  • Attempting to purchase a controlled substance
  • Tampering with evidence
  • Obtaining a prescription illegally

People charged with prostitution or those with a clear substance abuse problem also qualify for drug court in Florida.

To qualify for adult treatment courts in Georgia, drug offenders must:

  • Be aged 18 or older
  • Plead guilty to the charge
  • Admit to having a substance abuse problem
  • Not have been dismissed from a drug intervention program
  • Have no history of a violent felony, residential burglary, or drug trafficking or distribution
  • Reside in the county that the drug court serves
  • Have no pending charges from another county
  • Volunteer to enter drug court

Research shows drug courts are most effective in assisting individuals with substance use disorders, people likely to be unsuccessful in standard treatment and those with extensive criminal backgrounds, according to Deutsch.

“Those are actually the target populations for drug courts,” he said.

Deutsch noted that drug court may not help low-level drug offenders who do not have substance addictions. For example, someone who is arrested for marijuana possession but do not suffer from marijuana addiction likely will not benefit from treatment court.

The demographics of drug court participants fluctuate. Judge Jessica J. Recksiedler of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Courts of Florida noticed a trend among people in Seminole County’s drug court in December 2016. Just 9 percent of participants did not hold a high school diploma. This suggests educated individuals in the area are more likely to engage in drug crimes.

“That was somewhat surprising,” Recksiedler told DrugRehab.com. “It goes to show that anybody can get on pain medications. Anybody can be affected by addiction.”

Judge making a ruling

Tip of the Iceberg

Smith didn’t fit the profile of a drug user. She had never been in trouble with the law. Prior to her arrest, she hadn’t even received a speeding ticket. She owned a house, drove a nice car and made good money.

“Nobody knew I had an addiction,” said Smith.

“The drug use is the tip of the iceberg, but there are other problems underneath the surface.”

Kaitlyn Smith, drug court graduate

While drug court changed her life, the experience wasn’t always smooth. Two months into treatment, the court performed a urinary analysis. They found kratom, a mind-altering drug, in her system. She was arrested and ordered to undergo detox for a week.

Afterward, she stayed in jail until a bed at a nearby rehab center became available. A week later, a spot opened up at Project WARM, a women’s treatment facility in Bunnell, Florida. There, Smith discovered that she had post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The biggest thing about addiction is that it’s not just the drug use, but what’s underneath it,” said Smith, referring to her PTSD diagnosis. “The drug use is the tip of the iceberg, but there are other problems underneath the surface.”

Individuals with serious mental disorders can receive treatment for co-occurring disorders through the drug court system. Common mental disorders that coexist with addiction include depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and PTSD.

80 percent of people in mental health court experienced addiction. Lady Justice

Source: National Drug Court Institute

The Third Judicial Circuit Court of Florida provides mental health treatment to people in drug court. But it refers those with severe psychological problems to mental health court, where they also can receive support for substance abuse.

“People whose mental health problems are more predominant than their substance abuse, they go to mental health court,” said Recksiedler. “There, they can get more mental health treatment.”

Co-occurring disorders are common among drug court participants. A 2013 report by the National Drug Court Institute estimated that up to 40 percent of current treatment court enrollees dealt with mental illness. Conversely, up to 80 percent of people in mental health court experienced addiction.

Rehab providers assess drug court candidates and match them with the most appropriate treatment path. Drug court participants receive individualized plans that address their needs. Over time, as their health improves, they may transition from inpatient to outpatient care.

“It will look different for each person,” said Deutsch. “There are no cookie-cutter solutions; every person has a treatment plan specific to their needs.”

Veterans Treatment Court and PTSD

Many combat veterans battle co-occurring disorders. Nicholas Stefanovic served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2006, completing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While overseas, he was exposed to the horrors of war, which affected his mental health.

Upon returning to the United States in 2006, Stefanovic struggled to sleep. When he did, he experienced nightmares. He isolated himself, reluctant to spend time with family or friends. Angry outbursts and panic attacks were common.

“I was a stranger living in a different world,” Stefanovic, 34, told DrugRehab.com.

Donna Boggs

Nicholas Stefanovic, a former Marine, dealt with PTSD and prescription drug abuse before entering veterans treatment court.

His life spun out of control. He turned to opioids to cope with intrusive thoughts caused by PTSD. In 2007, he began using OxyContin, a prescription opioid that contains oxycodone. He said the pain medication fixed his problems.

Or so he thought.

Stefanovic eventually developed a substance use disorder. He lost his family, financial stability and shelter. He started living out of his car, sleeping in vacant parking lots. In 2009, he was arrested for attempting to cash stolen checks.

On May 1, 2009, the former sergeant entered Rochester Veterans Court in New York. Veterans court is a branch of treatment court that caters to military veterans with substance abuse problems who have broken the law.

Stefanovic was transferred to a residential facility. He planned on staying long enough to complete treatment court, and then he could go back to using drugs. However, he began to see the rewards of sobriety six months into the program.

The panic attacks he once routinely experienced were less common. His mental health improved. For the first time in years, he felt happy.

“What drug court did for me is it purchased for me months of mandatory clean time, which allowed me to naturally evolve into a contributing member of society,” said Stefanovic.

Developed in 2008, veterans treatment court is intended to help veterans improve their mental health, reduce their drug use and avoid jail. These courts often work with local Veterans Affairs facilities and other veterans organizations.

“What drug court did for me is it purchased for me months of mandatory clean time, which allowed me to naturally evolve into a contributing member of society.”

Nicholas Stefanovic, veterans treatment court graduate

The first veterans drug court began in Buffalo, New York. The program provides medical and mental health treatment, housing, transportation and assistance in locating employment. The court also enlists mentors to support participants.

Those in veterans court can remain in the community. However, program officials closely monitor their progress. If participants fail a drug test or do not adhere to treatment court rules, they could face fines, additional community service or incarceration.

As of May 2017, more than 300 veterans courts existed in the United States.


Benefiting the Community

More local and state governments have implemented drug courts in recent years. Today, a treatment court operates in every U.S. state and territory. The success rate of these diversion programs may help explain why.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, treatment court participants are six times more likely to remain in treatment long enough to experience improved health. Nationwide, three out of four drug court graduates avoid arrest for at least two years post-treatment. Drug courts also increase graduation rates among people addicted to methamphetamine by nearly 80 percent.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard giving a speech

In 2013, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said fewer than 20 percent of drug court and DUI court graduates in the state committed new felony offenses.

In his 2013 State of the State address, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said South Dakota had the fewest drug courts among all states, but the programs had yielded success. In the five years preceding his speech, fewer than one in five drug court and DUI court graduates in the state had committed new felony offenses.

Financed through state and federal funds, drug courts have proved to be cheaper alternatives to incarceration. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals states that taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided incarceration costs for every $1 invested in treatment courts.

People who complete drug court often become productive members of society. They pay taxes. They are available to care for their children. They make positive changes in their communities. Deutsch suggested that these outcomes benefit taxpayers.

“Ultimately, [treatment courts] save taxpayers money because they will not have to pay to incarcerate these individuals,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, it costs $34,000 a year to incarcerate someone. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said prisons are necessary, but he suggested that this money would be better used toward helping schools, building infrastructure or assisting the poor.

The state’s Justice Reinvestment initiative aims to keep drug offenders out of prison and to help them become productive community members. Developed in 2012, the program was designed to improve public safety, control spending and reduce recidivism.

“It also will save us $139 million,” Corbett said during his 2013-2014 budget address. This money has been allocated to numerous justice services, including probation services and county-based offender treatment.

It costs $34,000 a year to incarcerate someone in Pennsylvania. Lady Justice

Many reports detail the value of drug courts. A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice reviewed 154 evaluations on the effectiveness of adult, juvenile and DWI drug courts in the United States. The results showed lower recidivism rates among people in drug courts when compared with nonparticipants. However, juvenile drug courts saw smaller decreases in these rates.

Juvenile courts provide drug or alcohol treatment, sanctions and incentives to treat nonviolent youth who have substance abuse problems. While the Journal of Criminal Justice report found that juvenile courts have minimal effects on recidivism rates, a 2010 research update by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals reviewed several studies presenting the benefits of these programs.

The research update indicated that four juvenile drug courts in Utah were reducing repeat drug offenses. When compared to youth on probation for drug crimes, juvenile court participants experienced lower recidivism rates 30 months after entry. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals piece also cited a study that found that juvenile court participants in Ohio were less likely than youth probationers to be arrested for a new offense 28 months after entry.

What Is Drug Court Like?

Juvenile drug courts did not exist when Donna Boggs was a teenager. If they had, her life trajectory may have been different.

Boggs grew up around crime in Hutchinson, Kansas. She was raised by her grandfather and two uncles, all three of whom were members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. At 13, she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a stranger.

She used marijuana and cocaine to deal with the trauma. She eventually acquired a cocaine addiction that lasted nearly 30 years. During that time, she frequented the criminal justice system and lost custody of her children.

Donna Boggs

Donna Boggs attended counseling and support group meetings throughout her 10-month drug court program.

“I was a drug addict,” Boggs, 52, told DrugRehab.com. “I was doing a lot of criminal activity. I was put in jail time and time again.”

After an arrest for forgery, a judge in Reno County, Kansas, gave Boggs the opportunity to enter treatment court. She accepted.

During the 10-month program, she completed four phases. In the first, Boggs initiated a treatment plan, attended counseling and established relationships with her peers. She kept an agenda to track upcoming counseling appointments and court appearances throughout this 30-day stage.

Boggs attended individual counseling and Narcotics Anonymous meetings throughout the second phase, which lasted 60 days. She also actively sought employment. Drug court programs generally require participants to find a job or enroll as a full-time student before graduation.

“As the person moves through the program and demonstrates that they are going to their meetings and engaging in treatment, they may appear less frequently in court.”

Chris Deutsch, director of communications for the NADCP

The fourth phase lasted six months. During this time, Boggs continued to complete all tasks mandated in the first three stages. She also learned self-sufficiency in preparation for life after treatment court. After experiencing no setbacks, such as a failed drug test, Boggs was eligible for graduation.

The phases of drug court vary based on location, but usually they consist of three or four stages. Each phase is tailored to the individual’s needs and gives benchmarks to work toward, according to Deutsch.

“As the person moves through the program and demonstrates that they are going to their meetings and engaging in treatment, they may appear less frequently in court,” said Deutsch. “There is always a degree of monitoring, but it gets less intensive as they progress toward graduation.”

Woman walking down a path in the woods

New Lives, Bright Future

In February 2014, Boggs attended her drug court graduation. She was surrounded by a crowd comprising family, friends, law enforcement and drug counselors with whom she interacted during the program. She said the event wasn’t as large as a high school graduation, but it was just as joyous.

Boggs gave a speech. She described her arduous upbringing, her former lifestyle and the benefits of attending drug court. She also talked about meeting a woman during her stay. Everyone seemed to like this person, but Boggs did not. By the end of treatment, Boggs’ opinion had changed.

“That person was me,” she said, fighting back tears. “I learned to love myself.”

Drug court also turned Smith’s life around. Today, she has custody of her three children. She works for Family Life Center, an organization that provides support services to people affected by domestic or sexual violence in Flagler County.

Additionally, Smith serves as a peer recovery specialist for the Flagler County drug court team. In this role, she collaborates with a judge, therapy team, state attorney and public defender to decide the fate of drug offenders. She offers encouragement and recommendations to people entering treatment court.

“Everyone who went through addiction, they listen to me,” said Smith. “They are thankful to have me.”

Boggs and Smith are far from alone. Many individuals across the United States have had their lives changed after completing drug court. Even U.S. presidents have recognized this trend.

President Obama giving a speech

In 2016, former President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which expanded court diversion programs for people with co-occurring disorders.

In a 2015 speech, former President Barack Obama stressed the importance of investing in alternative-to-incarceration initiatives to save taxpayers money each year. In December 2016, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a law that amended existing federal initiatives to expand court diversion programs for those with co-occurring disorders.

At a 2016 rally, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his intent to increase incentives for states and local governments to use treatment courts. He said that this strategy offered a cost-effective response to substance use disorders.

With many politicians expressing support for drug diversion programs, Recksiedler believes the future of treatment courts in the United States beams bright.

“I think the future of drug courts looks good,” said Recksiedler. “And I think the prognosis of them is very good.”

Deutsch said that the opioid epidemic has caused local, state and federal policymakers to consider ways to better connect people in need with addiction treatment. They now see drug courts as a crucial part of that strategy.

“Drug courts are now considered a vital component of justice system reform, and we continue to see them expand across the country,” said Deutsch. “The challenge now is to ensure that there are enough drug courts to meet the need.”

Treatment courts annually refer about 150,000 people to treatment, more than any other system in America. But the Department of Justice identified 1.2 million people in the criminal justice system eligible for drug court who are unable to gain access because of their location.

Deutsch believes that the government should prioritize putting drug courts within the reach of everyone who needs them. As he said, they negate high incarceration rates. They improve health. They save lives.

Stefanovic can attest to these benefits. The day before entering veterans court, he was living out of his car. But the program allowed him to achieve sobriety and get his education. He got a job. He bought his own house and now has a family.

Today, Stefanovic is a consultant for the National Institute of Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. He has traveled the country advocating for the expansion of drug courts. He has held meetings with the United States secretary of veterans affairs, and he has spoken at the White House.

“My life is amazing,” said Stefanovic. “That one year in the [drug court] program changed everything for me.”

Thousands of Americans can say the same.

Matt Gonzales
Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Matt Gonzales is a writer and researcher for DrugRehab.com. He graduated with a degree in journalism from East Carolina University and began his professional writing career in 2011. Matt covers the latest drug trends and shares inspirational stories of people who have overcome addiction. Certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in health literacy, Matt leverages his experience in addiction research to provide hope to those struggling with substance use disorders.

Last updated on: March 2, 2020

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