Drug Court: Does It Help Keep Addicts out of Prison?

The local courthouse is a place where people suffering from drug addiction can find treatment instead of more jail time.

More than 2,300 counties nationwide have adopted drug treatment courts – where people accused of non-violent crimes that stem from addiction can receive treatment instead of long jail sentences often associated with drug-related crimes.

Drug court is a combination of addiction counseling, careful monitoring by law enforcement, frequent drug testing and group therapy. The methods focus directly on the source of why addicts repeatedly commit crimes and use drugs.

Administered by a combination of judges; prosecuting and defense attorneys; police officers and drug therapists – all who have experience dealing with addicts – drug court is designed to stop what can be an endless cycle of jail time, court dates and even more crimes carried out by people in need of treatment.

Three out of four candidates who make it through the year-long program remain free of any arrests for at least two years after graduating from drug court, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  

The NADCP also has found through longer-term studies that the use of drug courts in place of traditional jail sentencing has reduced drug-related crime about 35% since the programs were first established in the early 1990s.

President Barack Obama’s administration has pushed for a greater focus on treatment and prevention of drug addiction and related crimes within the court system by lobbying to double the funding given to drug court programs, according to National Public Radio.

Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s recently-appointed director of drug policy in the U.S., was quoted in June during an NPR program saying that drug courts have cut both prison costs and repeated crimes.

“Too often it’s easy to paint a drug court as social service work, et cetera, but quite frankly it’s as much crime prevention and public safety as it is reclaiming someone’s life,” Kerlikowske told NPR. “Everybody that’s in jail or prison gets back out except for very few, so if we don’t treat the problem they come back to these neighborhoods in worse condition than how they got there.”

Drug court is far from easy, and not all people suffering from addiction can enter the program. To qualify, a person cannot be charged with violent crimes or have any gang affiliation. The group of judges, lawyers, counselors and police officers who run the drug court have to approve the person’s entry, based on whether they believe he or she has a chance to grow from the treatment and quit using drugs.

Once in, there are group counseling sessions at least once a week at the courthouse, and frequent drug testing – as often as three times a week. At the beginning, participants can be placed on electronic home monitoring, or house arrest, and are constantly monitored by local police officers.

The ankle bracelets worn during house arrest detect if drugs or alcohol have entered the wearer’s blood stream. Participants may also be required to call their drug court coordinator every morning before heading to work or school.

If a candidate is removed from drug court for any reason, such as failing drug tests or repeatedly missing counseling sessions, he or she won’t be allowed back and can receive a full prison sentence for their criminal charge.

Even with these strict demands, many communities have found drug court to be successful. It costs fewer tax dollars than sending people who are fighting addiction to jail and has led to encouraging growth among those who participate, according to media reports.

“In this program I learned to deal with pain… it brings a positive change,” said Ruben, a participant in California’s Orange County Drug Court.