Moving Away from Drug Courts

Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use
Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)
May 2014

moving-away-drug-courtsDrug courts have spread across the country, yet available research does not support their continued expansion. Most drug courts do not reduce imprisonment, do not save money or improve public safety, and fail to help those struggling with drug problems. The drug court model must be corrected to play a more effective role in improving the wellbeing of people involved in the criminal justice system who suffer substance misuse problems – while preserving scarce public safety resources.

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Drug courts arose in the 1980s as a laudable attempt to ameliorate the devastating effects of the nation’s misguided drug laws. Today there are more than 2,800 drug courts operating in the 50 states and U.S. Territories, up from 1 in 1989 and 665 in 2000. Half of all U.S. counties have at least one operating drug court. In 2014, the Obama administration budgeted $85 million for drug courts, with states and localities spending considerably more to fund them.

Available evidence shows, however, that most drug courts are costly; are no more effective than voluntary treatment; do not demonstrate cost savings, reduced criminal justice involvement, or improved public safety; leave many participants worse off for trying; and often deny proven treatment modalities, such as methadone and buprenorphine.

Drug courts programs should not receive public funding unless they meet basic minimum standards to live up to their promise of providing effective treatment to criminally-involved people who need it. Such programs should never be used for people who merely use or possess small amounts of drugs.

Recommendations: Drug Courts Must Change

The Drug Policy Alliance supports eliminating criminal penalties for personal drug possession and use. There may be a role for drug courts as well, but only if they undergo a change of course. Specifically, drug courts should not receive public funding unless they:

1. Target people arrested for more serious offenses who would otherwise face lengthy incarceration terms;

2. Eliminate jail sanctions for simple drug relapse;

3. Allow the use of opioid substitution treatments, such as methadone and buprenorphine, to treat opioid-using participants;

4. Provide opioid-using participants with overdose prevention education, training and naloxone; and

5. Adopt pre-plea rather than post-plea or post-conviction procedures for participant eligibility.