Drug Courts

3. A Brief History of Drug Courts

In response to an explosion in the use of illicit drugs in the area, the first drug court was established in Dade County, Florida, in 1989. Though the drug problem in this particular jurisdiction was substantial, it mirrored similar issues arising across the United States: a majority of arrestees tested positive for drug use upon arrest, and recidivism rates for drug abuse were close to 67%. As a result, drug court programming became a viable alternative for dealing with drug-involved offenders, and these courts have continued to permeate the criminal justice landscape since their inception (according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals [NADCP], there are now more than 2,000 drug courts in operation), to the point that all states are now reported to have an operating drug court or are in the planning phases of implementing one (Belenko, 1999).

Drug courts were initially designed to provide adequate rehabilitation for drug abusers by combining treatment with formal supervision and judicial sanctions. The core tenets of drug courts, as outlined by the Drug Courts Program Office, are early identification, referral, and screening; ongoing and continuous criminal justice supervision; comprehensive substance abuse and rehabilitation services; mandatory drug testing on a regular basis; judicial status hearings in which a judge reviews the progress of participants; appropriate sanctions and incentives given for levels of compliance with program requirements; and coordination among all actors (treatment, courts, probation, etc.).

The underlying notion driving each of these concepts is that drug court programming links the various stages and systems within the criminal justice process to provide a comprehensive and efficient means of supervising and treating offenders with substance-related problems. Members of the legal system work together with drug court and treatment staffs to determine who is the best fit for their programs, to lay out treatment and supervision plans, and to help bring the mission of treating offenders’ substance abuse problems to the forefront. This structure allows for the construction of supervision plans that will best fit each offender’s needs and is consistent with research findings showing that such a differential approach to supervision planning is best in most cases (Taxman & Bouffard, 2002).

While drug courts provide a means to specifically target and treat offenders’ drug problems and research shows that “drug courts outperform virtually all other strategies that have been used with drug-involved offenders” (Belenko, 1998), knowledge regarding the overall state of drug courts across the United States is still in its infancy, due both to the nature of research conducted to date and to the lack of substantive knowledge on these courts’ constitution.

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