Drug courts are judicially supervised court dockets that provide a sentencing alternative of treatment combined with supervision for people living with serious substance use and mental health disorders. Drug courts are problem-solving courts that take a public health approach using a specialized model in which the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social service, and treatment communities work together to help addicted offenders into long-term recovery.
In Australia, drug courts operate in various jurisdictions, although their formation, process and procedures differ. The main aim of the Australian courts is to divert illicit drug users from incarceration into treatment programs for their addiction. Drug courts have been established in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, and Western Australia. People appearing in Australian drug courts often fall outside the parameters for other pre-court services
Drug treatment courts (DTCs) are a recent phenomenon in the Canadian criminal justice system. The first Canadian DTC commenced in Toronto in 1998. The Federal Government currently supports six DTCs in Canada including: Edmonton (December 2005), Winnipeg (January 2006), Ottawa (March 2006), Regina (October 2006), Toronto (1998), and Vancouver (2001). Calgary and Durham have also recently initiated DTCs.
In the UK, drug courts are currently being tested in various places. In December 2005, the United Kingdom began a pilot scheme of dedicated drug courts. Family Drug and Alcohol Court are in operation in various locations throughout the country, including London, Gloucestershire and Milton Keynes where the service is run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. In February 2015 it was announced that more would open in East Sussex, Kent and Medway, Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter, and West Yorkshire.
The first drug court in the US took shape in Miami-Dade County, Florida in 1989 as a response to the growing crack cocaine problem plaguing the city. Chief Judge Gerald Wetherington, Judge Herbert Klein, then State Attorney Janet Reno, and Public Defender Bennett Brummer designed the court for nonviolent offenders to receive treatment. In the United States, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, as of December 31, 2014, there are 3,057 drug courts representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, and various tribal regions.
Effectiveness in the United States
Drug court is the single most successful intervention in US history for leading people struggling with serious addiction out of the justice system and into lives of health and long-term recovery. Numerous studies show that punishment simply does not solve the problem of addiction; in fact, 95% of those released from prison return to drug use. The punitive approach has produced disastrous societal and economic consequences for our communities, resulting in 1.5 million seriously addicted people behind bars and more than $80 billion spent annually on corrections. Drug courts connect participants with evidence-based treatment for a minimum of one year and work as a team to help them stay in treatment long enough to be successful. In fact, drug courts refer more people to treatment than any other intervention in America, and those people are more successful in treatment than any other group. The average national completion rate for drug court participants in 2014 was nearly 60%; this is approximately two-thirds higher than probation and more than twice the rate of probationers with severe substance use disorders. Once an individual graduates from the program, there is a 75% chance they will remain arrest-free, compared to only 30% for people released from prison.
The drug court model and its principles uphold the enduring, absolute value of every human person and are changing the US perspective on what it means to serve justice. The result is a variety of court programs now focused on treatment rather than incarceration for repeat DWI offenders, parents whose children have been removed from the home due to substance use, juveniles facing criminal charges, tribal communities torn apart by addiction, and veterans struggling with the lingering effects of trauma. These programs prove that providing individualized treatment plans and dignity-restoring support is the most effective way to lead people into recovery and break the cycle of recidivism.
In this way, drug court is the foundation of the current criminal justice reform movement in the US, giving rise to other incarceration alternatives, diversion programs, sentencing and juvenile justice reforms, harm reduction strategies, and the establishment of reentry programs for prisoners with substance use histories. Drug court introduced humanity in a system that has relied on inhumane tactics for too long, proving that it is possible to repair lives, reunite families, and reduce drug use and crime, and to do so for far fewer tax dollars than the cost of jail or prison.
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- National Association of Drug Court Professionals (2013-2015). Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards, Volumes I and II.
- What is a drug court? Fact sheet This is a knowledge transfer web site provided by the Addiction and Mental Health Research Laboratory, University of Alberta dedicated to sharing recent addictions and mental health research with the public.