U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

30 Years of Drug Courts: Justice Reform That Works

© Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock.com (see reuse policy).

Stanley Goldstein — a former military policeman turned hard-nosed, tough-on-crime judge — was nobody’s idea of a revolutionary, particularly if the revolution involved drug addiction, the court system, and treatment as an alternative to jail time.

But more than 30 years ago, when Goldstein became the first judge to preside over an unheralded legal experiment that would come to be called “drug court,” he helped launch a movement that would reshape American jurisprudence.

What began in a single Miami courtroom in 1989 has multiplied to more than 3,500 drug and treatment courts in every state in the union, fundamentally changing the legal system’s approach to people who commit crimes as a result of substance abuse disorder and mental illness. Today there are not only drug courts, but specialized treatment courts targeting veterans, juveniles, Native Americans, and people who drive while intoxicated, among others. And all the while, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has played a pivotal role in supporting this transformation.

To see how drug courts can change lives and help conquer substance abuse disorder, look no further than Family Accountability and Recovery Court (FARC) in rural eastern North Carolina, which is supported by BJA’s Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Program (COSSAP). (FARC case study courtesy of the Institute for Intergovernmental Research)

Beginning in 1995, just 6 years after the first drug court convened, BJA awarded its first round of grants to localities starting drug courts of their own. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed to hundreds of other projects. Last year alone, BJA supported drug courts in 95 locations with grants totaling almost $67 million.

BJA also helps spotlight some of the nation’s most effective drug courts and enables others around the country to study and learn from them. With BJA sponsorship and support, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals has identified 15 “mentor courts” that serve adults and veterans. These mentor courts host visits from and share best practices with other court staff members.

“One of BJA’s great strengths is supporting innovative local programs and then spreading the lessons learned from them around the country. BJA programs promote fresh thinking and new experiences, and then help these insights achieve widespread acceptance and adoption. Drug court is a terrific example of how this process works.”

—BJA Director Karhlton F. Moore

The practices and procedures of drug courts vary from place to place, but all differ radically from their traditional counterparts in one respect: Their primary goal is not punishing past bad acts with imprisonment but preventing future bad acts through recovery.

In drug courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys work cooperatively, rather than as adversaries, identifying people who are accused of crimes that stem directly from substance abuse, and who are deemed less likely to offend if they are not addicted.

Drug-court defendants are not sent to jail but are provided with treatment programs, support services, and intensive supervision to help them escape addiction. Finally, defendants who successfully complete treatment have their sentences vacated and, in some cases, their criminal charges or convictions expunged.

The original drug court was, in many ways, an act of desperation. In the 1980s, amid an alarming surge in crime, America had declared a “war on drugs.” Miami, in particular, was besieged by cocaine-fueled violence. And a number of Miami criminal justice professionals feared that they were losing the war.

Arresting more and more people for drug crimes, and imposing increasingly severe prison sentences, overwhelmed the judicial system but did little to break the grim cycle of repeat criminal offenses. A deeply frustrated ad hoc group in Miami decided to try something different, and the first drug court was launched.

With his gruff manner and Brooklyn accent, Goldstein was an unlikely choice to serve as the public face of this project. But somehow, the combination worked. Goldstein established a tone that many future drug court judges would follow, combining “tough love” counseling for defendants under his jurisdiction with joyous celebrations for those who successfully completed their programs.

From the beginning, Miami officials were encouraged by the results that the drug court achieved. And their faith has been borne out.

For example, a recent study of Pennsylvania’s adult drug treatment courts and driving under the influence courts found that they reduced recidivism by 36 percent to 75 percent, depending on the program. These courts also saved the state money by reducing the number of people rearrested for crimes, which cuts the number of trials in state courtrooms and the amount of time people serve in jail.

In addition, a comprehensive national study in 2011 by the National Institute of Justice concluded that drug courts work.

The study found that drug court participants are less likely to test positive for drug use and less likely to be rearrested than comparable individuals. And although drug-court programs initially cost more than traditional judicial proceedings, they save money in the long run by lowering repeat arrests and incarceration, reducing overall costs by an average of at least $5,680 per person.

Date Published: May 3, 2022