Since their inception in 1989 in Miami, Florida, treatment courts have become one of America's most researched and successful government programs. Treatment courts are an alternative to incarceration that connect people with substance use and mental health disorders with the services they need to lead productive lives and keep them out of jail or prison.
The Department of Justice began supporting treatment courts more than 25 years ago. Congress established the Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) manages the grant program, which provides grants to states, state courts, local courts, local government units, and federally recognized Indian tribal governments to establish treatment courts. Treatment courts are an intervention; they allow individuals to obtain treatment, resources, and the tools they need to succeed.
"Treatment courts serve individuals facing incarceration for criminal activity rooted in substance use and mental health disorders. Treatment courts have demonstrated that it is far more effective to bring together resources in one place and connect individuals to specific treatment and resources, including housing, treatment, or family reunification support," said Christopher Deutsch, director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). NADCP is BJA's technical assistance provider for treatment courts, which provides technical assistance and training to treatment courts nationwide.
In 2022, the Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program received an appropriation of $88,000,000 for Adult Drug Courts (ADC) and a separate appropriation of $29,000,000 for Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC). These funds will help more than 130,000 individuals and communities in 2022. Success looks different for every participant, which is the underpinning of treatment courts. When a person is referred to treatment court, there is a non-adversarial relationship between the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and social worker focused on helping the individual.
Key to this success is the individualized treatment plan each participant receives and the length of participation in treatment court. The process typically takes 12-24 months, and while there may be setbacks along the way, treatment court teams are prepared to respond.
"There is a misconception that treatment court participants are low-level offenders. But those individuals are generally better served by less intensive interventions. Individuals in treatment courts have a myriad of needs, and the court is designed to address them. When someone makes it to treatment count, accountability means addressing the issues that led them to the justice system, accepting behavior, and working to change it," Deutsch said.
The innovative idea from the 1980s continues to grow and improve because practitioners and BJA staff are dedicated to following the research. The future of treatment courts is bright, and communities can expect greater equity and technology in their local treatment courts as the program advances.
"We know treatment courts haven't been immune to the racial and gender disparities, but BJA, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and local treatment courts are taking steps to remedy the inequities. There are now several toolkits to help staff analyze their courts' operations to help them better represent the communities they serve," Gregory D. Torain, policy advisor for BJA, said.
Equity also means making participation more accessible. In the future, communities can expect to see more use of telehealth in both rural communities and now in more urban communities. The priority will always be to help people engage with treatment.
"If telehealth opens more opportunities to do that while not overburdening people with transportation issues or disrupting their employment, telehealth should be embraced," Deutsch said.
BJA and its partners have also cultivated grassroots efforts of local treatment court alumni to build and maintain peer recovery networks and support. This helps BJA and its partners understand what will engage participation in treatment courts and increase success by developing approaches and strategies that are informed by those who have been successful in treatment courts.
Treatment courts have demonstrated that the courts can deal with public health issues. To learn more about treatment courts and how a community can implement them, visit the Adult Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program section of the BJA website.