Why drug court works: Most offenders get the help they need to stay out of trouble

Treatment court, usually referred to as “drug court,” helps offenders whose use of alcohol and/or drugs has gotten them into trouble with the law. Many times these men and women have never had their chemical dependence addressed. And it’s often the underlying problem causing their legal issues. Treatment court offers a life-changing alternative to incarceration for that offender.

A quick background: These courts came about in 1989 in Miami-Dade County back when crack began rearing its ugly head and filling jails to overflowing. Today, there are more than 2,500 drug treatment courts in the United States. The courts have been a hit because they are cost-effective, help nonviolent offenders get the help they need, monitor the offenders carefully and, in most cases, give the community back a new and improved citizen.

Treatment court is a vast improvement over the high cost of incarceration that rarely offers offenders treatment for crimes caused in part by chemical dependency and substance disorders.

Participants are referred through the district attorney’s office, though the initial recommendation may come from the family or probation or from their defense attorney, and then go onto the DA.

Potential participants sign a contract promising to abide by the court’s rules and regulations. They will normally participate from 12 to 24 months. They usually appear before the judge weekly for progress updates. They are helped to find employment or enroll in vocational pursuits. Most do community service.
Overall goals of the courts include reducing drug use in the community, which often leads to crime, and to return offenders to the community with a new attitude, changed behaviors, restored self-esteem and dignity, and more options for leading a more meaningful and comfortable life, drug-free. Vital to all this is that the participant be held accountable and the community’s safety protected.

All participate in random drug testing and in substance disorders treatment. Their treatment plan will address areas such as how to improve relationships, legal issues, mental and physical health, educational and vocational issues, leisure time activities, substance use, homelessness and general life skills.

Each treatment court has a professional team composed of law enforcement, mental health, treatment providers, social services, probation, vocational, district attorney and defense attorneys, and the presiding judge and his/her support staff. This team meets weekly to discuss and evaluate each participant’s progress and needs.

It’s been shown participants don’t necessarily need motivation to be successful in the program. Motivation often comes later on as the participant begins to see meaningful changes in his/her life and make better choices. Former participants often drop back to the court office just to poke their head in and thank the staff, saying their experience in treatment court was the best thing that ever happened to them. It turned their life around.

Facts and statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals:

  • 75 percent of participants remain arrest-free for at least two years following graduation from the program
  • Studies indicate drug court reduces crime by much as 45 percent more than other sentencing options
  • Drug court saves from $3,000 to $13,000 per client in reduced prison costs, further arrests, trials and victimization
  • Drug courts are six times more likely to keep substance users in treatment long enough for them to get better
  • 75 percent of adult drug court graduates will never feel another pair of handcuffs wrapped around their wrists