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Drug Courts

Abstract and Keywords

Drug courts were developed to facilitate treatment for criminal offenders with substance abuse problems. Drug courts operate using dual paradigms of healing and discipline via treatment, social service resources, and case management for healing, and judicial sanctions and criminal justice interventions in efforts to initiate change resulting in sobriety and no further criminal behavior. The key goals of most drug courts are to reduce drug use and associated criminal behavior by engaging and retaining drug-involved offenders in programs and treatment services; to concentrate expertise about drug cases into a single courtroom; to address other defendant needs through clinical assessment and effective case management; and to free judicial, prosecutorial and public defense resources for adjudicating non-drug cases.

It is vital that social work students be introduced to drug courts and how they function for students to gain better understanding of how addiction can bring their clients into contact with the criminal justice system. Drug courts are ideal settings for internship placements so that students can get hands-on experience in a court setting and assist clients using a therapeutic jurisprudence model.

Keywords: forensic social work, addiction, criminal justice, drug courts, recovery

Drug courts were developed to facilitate treatment for criminal offenders with substance abuse problems. To be eligible for drug court treatment, offenders often are required to plead guilty and receive a suspended sentence, that upon completion of the drug court, the conviction will be expunged; or they may go through pre-plea diversion, so that when offenders complete treatment the charges are dismissed (Fischer, 2003). These courts are often referred to as diversion programs, as they operate in lieu of jail or prison. Drug courts operate using dual paradigms of healing and discipline via treatment, social service resources, and case management for healing, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, judicial sanctions and criminal justice interventions in efforts to initiate change resulting in sobriety and no further criminal behavior.

Judge Jeffery Tauber, considered a pioneer of the drug court movement, described drug courts as building a chain link fence around their clients. This metaphor included “technologies of surveillance” including drug court and treatment personnel, social workers, case managers, police officers, drug testing, and technology as links in the fence. This fence joins treatment and extensive supervision rendering each client’s “actions, behaviors, and attitudes visible to a Judge” who can swiftly serve up sanctions for non-compliance to program goals (Colyer, 2015, p. 3). Drug courts use surveillance and social control as a means of creating new tax payers. Research suggests that the majority of drug court clients have poor work histories and lack high school diplomas or GDEs (Kaye, 2009; Tiger, 2011). Drug court clients are required to work or further their education while in the program, which usually lasts 12 to 18 months. As a result, persons leave the program with the ability to contribute to society in prosocial ways, as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

According to the National Institute of Justice (2015), over 3,400 drug courts are currently operating in the United States. Over half of these courts work with adult drug offenders or persons charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI). Other courts, often referred to as boutique courts, have been developed to address issues related to juvenile drug offenders, families involved in the child welfare system, tribal courts, veteran’s courts, reentry, and mental health courts. Regardless of the type of court, the goal is the same, treatment and criminal justice rehabilitation.

A Brief History: Managing Those Who Can’t Manage Themselves

The creation of the first drug treatment courts was in response to the “revolving door” of drug use, incarceration, failures of probation or parole, and recidivism (Hon & Hora, 2002). The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and a need to understand addiction created a need for new approaches in our criminal justice system. Various social and political forces during that time (most importantly, the crack cocaine epidemic and the subsequent “War on Drugs”) created an environment in which court dockets were overwhelmed by drug cases and prisons were filled to capacity with drug offenders (Gottfredson, Kearley, Najaka, & Rocha, 2007). The War on Drugs initiative, put in place during the Nixon administration, was intended to decrease crime by use of long-term imprisonment of individuals, so they could not commit additional crimes, and by establishing deterrence based on those lengthy prison sentences (Kaye, 2009). Widespread use of crack cocaine led to state and federal legislation mandating serious penalties for drug traffickers and users. These penalties became known as mandatory minimum sentences, whereby decision making regarding sentencing was largely taken out of the hands of judges and reduced to a decision-making matrix that determined the amount of time defendants were to spend in prison based on the amount and type of drug found at arrest. The application of these laws threatened to overwhelm the criminal justice system (Hora & Stalcup, 2007). As a result, Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created $1 billion in drug court implementation grants. The attorney general was charged with overseeing the development of drug courts across the country. The office charged with administering these grants is the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Courts Program Office. The G. W. Bush administration continued to fund drug court programming as an inexpensive means for fighting the ongoing War on Drugs (Kaye, 2009). Drug court implementation continues to require federal and state funding support. Initially, the federal government’s plan was for all drug courts to be self-sustaining after a five-year funding period. However, this has not occurred, resulting in drug court staff seeking external funding. One study found that drug court administrators and judges in five states found their drug courts did not receive local funding and that local sources proved to be an obstacle rather than a resource (Nored, Carlan, & Goodman, 2009).

The current wave of problem-solving experimentation can be traced back to the opening of the first drug court in Dade County, Florida, in 1989, as an effort to sentence addicted defendants to long-term, judicially supervised drug treatment instead of incarceration. Participation in treatment is closely monitored by the drug court judge, who responds to progress or failure with a system of graduated rewards and sanctions, including short-term jail sentences. If a participant successfully completes treatment, the judge will reduce the charges or dismiss the case (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001). Graduation from drug court is contingent upon satisfactory completion of substance abuse treatment, attendance at drug court hearings, full-time continuous employment for at least six months (unless waived), no positive or diluted drug tests for at least six months, and no felony or serious misdemeanor charges while participating in drug court.

Dade County’s Felony Drug Court was widely touted for its innovative procedures and emphasis on teamwork, cooperation, and collaboration among members of the courtroom work group (Davis, Smith, & Lurigio, 1994; Lurigio, 2008). Drawing on the principle of therapeutic jurisprudence, its philosophy and operational design became the prototype for future Drug Treatment Courts. The court was based on the premise that addiction is a disease that promotes criminal behavior; it is therefore highly treatment-orientated and supportive of clients’ recovery efforts. Offenders are neither prosecuted nor punished for their substance use problems. Instead, the court provides, or brokers, drug treatment and other services that help them achieve sobriety and stability in their lives (Florida’s Eleventh Judicial Circuit, 2007; Lurigio, 2008).

The results of the Dade County experiment attracted national attention. An initial study by the National Institute of Justice revealed that Dade County drug court defendants had fewer re-arrests than comparable non-drug court defendants (Goldkamp & Weiland, 1993: Executive Summary). Based on these kinds of results, drug courts have become an increasingly standard feature of the judicial landscape across the country (Feinblatt, Berman, & Fox, 2000). In the years since the opening of the Dade County drug court, dozens of other specialized, problem-solving courts have been developed to test new approaches to difficult cases (Feinblatt, Berman, & Denckla, 2000).

Practitioners and reformers, impressed with positive results found in the drug treatment literature (Anglin & Hser, 1990; Collins & Allison, 1983; Wish & Johnson, 1986), advanced drug treatment as a strategy to deal with the problems of drugs and crime in the United States. Drug treatment courts are designed to increase the likelihood that drug-addicted offenders will seek and persist longer in drug treatment (Gottfredson, Najaka, & Kearley, 2003).

The key goals of most drug courts are to reduce drug use and associated criminal behavior by engaging and retaining drug-involved offenders in programs and treatment services, to concentrate expertise about drug cases into a single courtroom, to address other defendant needs through clinical assessment and effective case management; and to free judicial, prosecutorial and public defense resources for adjudicating non-drug cases. Drug court is grounded in the concept of therapeutic jurisprudence, which was introduced in 1987, and has been extensively discussed in the legal literature (Lurigio, 2008; Wexler, 1992). Therapeutic jurisprudence is a perspective or paradigm that guides court and addiction interventions for the purpose of improving clients’ lives. According to therapeutic jurisprudence, the law is an active social force that can have profound consequences on an offender’s problems. Therefore, courts can be change agents that exert influence through their procedures, rulings, and dispositions (Lurigio, 2008; Wexler & Winick, 1996).

The original Miami model evolved in its successive applications to other settings. It was itself transformed in substance and procedure as the basic model traveling swiftly across the United States and to locations abroad. Forty-four operational drug treatment courts in the United States and 215 jurisdictions were formally involved in the process of planning such a court (Hora & Stalcup, 2007). As a result, nearly 800 drug treatment courts were in existence in 2001 (U.S. General Accounting Office, 2002). By 2004, that number had grown to 1,621.

Theoretical perspectives

Drug courts are atheoretical in nature, meaning that their development, implementation, and evaluation are not driven by theory. Drug courts rely on the therapeutic jurisprudence model and the theory of restorative justice on which to base their practice. However, scholars argue that healing and punishment are incongruent resulting in a hybrid model of questionable value that does not closely relate to either (Armstrong, 2008; Bolt, 2010; Meithe, Lu, & Reese, 2000). Therapeutic jurisprudence, originally defined by Wexler and Winick in the early 1990s, suggests that it “focuses on the socio-psychological ways in which laws and legal processes affect individuals involved in the legal system” (Hora, Schma, & Rosenthal, 1999) specifically focusing on therapeutic outcomes for clients. Assessment and treatment clearly distinguishes therapeutic jurisprudence from traditional jurisprudence, where the offender receives little or no treatment while under the purview of the criminal justice system and is released upon sentence completion.

Therapeutic jurisprudence uses the law and incorporates medical and psycho-social perspectives of addiction, merged with the punitive sanctions of the criminal justice system, to treat addiction (Tiger, 2011). Braithwaite’s theory of restorative justice uses a small component of that theory, the tenet of re-integrative shaming (Bolt, 2010), to meet its rehabilitative goals. Consistent with restorative justice theory, the judge and other staff moralize about the defendant’s deviant behavior in court (Goetz, 2008), thereby setting a theme, or certifying event of said deviance, with the graduation from drug court being a public event where the court publicly decertifies the offender rendering him/her safe to reenter the community. However, Meithe, Lu, and Reese’s (2000) research found that the shaming was displaced with stigmatizing comments rather than re-integrative language. They found the graduation ceremonies to be perfunctory rather than a time where judges and drug court and treatment staff offered re-integrative transitional assistance for graduates leaving the program.

The theory of restorative justice relies on mutual aid, which can be translated into the conferencing that takes place between drug court and treatment professionals, the offender, and the offender’s family; it rarely includes community service as an alternative to incarceration. Community service is a strong tenet of the theory and is seen as an intervention where the offender works to restore what was taken from a victim or community (Bazemore, 1999; Bazemore & Umbreit, 1995). However, the victim lies at the foundation of Restorative Justice theory, and in drug courts there are none. Fulkerson (2009) argues that drug abuse and crime result in harm to society, with the offenders showing little remorse for violating legal and social norms. Restorative Justice Theory posits that rehabilitation will not likely occur without retribution. Drug court’s sanctions and shamming could act as a form of restoration through retribution. The judge serves out retribution or punishment through shamming and sanctions. Finally, drug courts can’t be truly restorative because the primary players are judges and attorneys, and a strong community component is lacking.

While both therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice theory share some components of the underpinnings of drug court, the activities vary widely depending on the judge, access to treatment, and the drug court process, producing often wildly different outcomes.

The Operation and Administration of Drug Court Treatment

Ideally the drug court team uses non-adversarial, interdisciplinary collaborative process, with a foundation in strengths-based, culturally sensitive approaches to evidence-based treatment (Lutze & Van Wormer, 2014). The drug court team includes a judge, attorneys for both defense and prosecution (state), bailiffs, and court administrators, police, community corrections, social workers, and substance abuse treatment personnel. Social workers are charged with motivating offenders to accept treatment rejecting the drug lifestyle, (Kaye, 2009) often acting as case managers in the process. The judges control the process that takes place in their courtrooms, which is at times referred to as “theatre.” Judges praise or admonish offenders based upon whether they are making progress toward the goals of the court, which are based on ten key components to assure treatment fidelity (Roll, Prendergast,Richardson, Burdon, & Ramiriez, 2005).

According to Lutze and Van Wormer (2014), two areas of emphasis drive successful drug courts, one giving direction to the team, the other focusing on the offender. The first emphasis guides the structure and function of the drug court itself focusing its attention on, “the team’s ability to maintain program fidelity and the integrity of the process over time by focusing on their decision-making, continuing education, and the drug court’s design (Lutze & Van Wormer, 2014, p. 352). The second emphasizes the stages or phases that the offender must pass through to successfully complete the process, relying on constant communication among team members and the offender.

The ten components include are listed below. For further explanation, see: The Bureau of Justice Assistance (2004).

  1. 1. Integration of alcohol and other drug treatment services with justice system case processing.

  2. 2. Using a non-adversarial approach, prosecution and defense counsel [to] promote public safety while protecting participants’ due process rights.

  3. 3. Eligible participants are identified early and promptly placed in the drug court.

  4. 4. Provide access to a continuum of alcohol, drug, and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.

  5. 5. Abstinence is monitored by frequent alcohol and other drug testing.

  6. 6. A coordinated strategy governs drug court responses to participants’ compliance.

  7. 7. Ongoing judicial interaction with each drug court participant is essential.

  8. 8. Monitoring and evaluation measure[ing] the achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness.

  9. 9. Continuing interdisciplinary education promotes effective drug court planning, implementation, and operations.

  10. 10. Forging partnerships among drug courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations generates local support and enhances drug court effectiveness.

In addition to the key components, several other factors come into play, including the ability to: (a) apply leverage through the swift imposition of consequences should the offender not meet program requirements; (b) identify the population severity of the target population based upon the extent of the offender’s substance abuse and criminal history; (c) ensure program intensity being the extent to which both the program and the offender are held accountable; and (d) the focus remains on rehabilitation by supporting changes needed for the offender to successfully reenter society substance free with no further criminal involvement (Lutze & Von Wormer, 2014). Mackenhem and Higgins (2010) found that court personnel have a positive impact on outcomes because their professional belief systems, staff judgments, perceptions, and behaviors impact treatment success.

The Drug Court Process and Components

In some cases, it is very clear how people end up in drug court treatment. Most DWI first time offenders are referred to drug court. In other cases, unless the person arrested is under the influence at the time of the commission of the crime or is caught selling or buying a substance, it is determined through assessment that the person is suited for drug court treatment. Judges now consider both misdemeanor and felony drug cases.

Once the offender has been determined by prosecutors, to be drug court eligible, he/she must decide whether they are willing to plead guilty, with the knowledge that upon successful completion of their treatment their case will be expunged; or they are willing to be placed in diversion, where drug court treatment takes place in lieu of a plea, and the case will be dismissed upon successful completion of the program. They come to these decisions with the assistance of their defense attorneys. They are then arraigned before the drug court judge, who makes the final determination.

The offender must agree to regularly scheduled meetings with the judge in court to assess progress toward individual and drug court goals, attend substance abuse treatment, submit to random drug testing, and participate in case management. Based on the offender’s performance the judge will levy sanctions for inappropriate behavior and continue to assess the offender’s progress and eligibility for graduation (Brown, Allison, & Nieto, 2010).

Program Offender Characteristics: High-Risk, High Need

Admission criteria for drug courts were developed for persons who are addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol, who have or were likely to fail lesser dispositions such as probation or pretrial supervision. Eligibility is assessed using standardized risk and clinical assessment tools. Drug dealing or past history of violence does not necessarily prohibit offenders who meet criteria for drug courts, nor does having a serious mental illness or medical condition (National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 2013).

Drug court clients tend to be in their early thirties, male, white, and poor. They tend to have strained relationships, poor employment histories, less than a high school education, extensive drug use and criminal histories, and many suffer with mental illness in addition to their drug addiction (Roll et al., 2005).


Sanctions can range from requiring the offender to sit in the jury box for an entire day observing the proceedings and progress of his drug court counterparts, journaling about issues related to treatment, being admonished in front of their peers in court, to spending several days in jail. Use of sanctions to control behavior hasn’t been a primary focus when investigating outcomes (Brown et al., 2010). Brown and colleagues investigated the relationship between sanctions and treatment dropout using a hazards model for time to treatment to determine how sanctions impacted program dropout. These researchers found that dropout was correlated with unemployment and with having less than a high school diploma. Dropout was higher when sanctions were delivered within the first month of treatment; however, that held only for offenders with extensive criminal histories who had served enough time in jail or prison who had become acclimated to being behind bars. The reverse held, as well, with offenders lacking a criminal history less likely to drop out when sanctions were leveled during the first month of treatment.

Other researchers have found that the judge’s ability to apply swift jail sanctions reinforced treatment retention (Marlowe, Festinger, Foltz, Lee, & Patapis, 2005; Satel, 1998). Both Marchand, Waller, and Carey (2006) and Gottfredson et al. (2007) found that increased sanctions were related to higher numbers of non-completers. While sanctions can have the intended effect of maintaining drug court offenders through graduation, possible moderators that need to be taken into consideration include “age, gender, ethnicity, drug of choice, educational attainment, employment prior to treatment, and criminal history” (Brown et al., 2010, p. 136), judicial involvement in the process and other drug court program components, including access to quality treatment and residential options, and other resources for offenders (Stinchcomb, 2010). Research suggests that offenders with extensive criminal histories may benefit from closer supervision and the threat of sanctions (Marlowe, Festinger, Dugosh, Lee, & Benasutti, 2007). In addition, Francis and Reynolds (2015) recent research found that even 30 days of treatment produced moderate harm reduction in a sample of non-completers.

Judges also offer rewards for good behavior. Rewards include: being the first to speak with the judge and then being able to leave instead of being expected to sit through the entire court docket, as is typically required. Judges may also ask clients who are particularly successful to share their stories as a means of providing a good example for fellow offenders (Lyons, 2013). Of course graduating from the program is the ultimate reward.

Completers versus Non-Completers

Gathering data on non-completers is vital to our understanding of therapeutic jurisprudence (Francis & Reynolds, 2015). Roll et al. (2005) conducted a logistic regression on 99 drug court enrollees and found two predictors of success and failure. While 50% of enrollees went on to graduate from the program, employed enrollees were more likely to complete drug court treatment, while members with illicit IV drug use were more likely to drop out of the program prior to completion.

Evaluation: Are Drug Courts Effective?

Measuring the effectiveness of drug courts is not an easy task. Hundreds of process and outcome evaluations have been conducted since drug courts came into existence, along with a variety of mixed results. Scholars argue that problems with evaluation result from drug court’s atheoretical orientation. This has led to a variety of attempts in defining success. Most early evaluations measured program success based on re-arrest (recidivism) and relapse (returning to drug use). However, most of these outcome studies have lacked methodological rigor. Goldkamp, White, and Robinson (2001) argued that the measurement of outcomes requires a comparative framework. Randomized, controlled studies should be conducted where the behavior of drug court participants is compared to a non-drug court cohort to make inferences about program outcomes. It is common practice in many drug court evaluations to compare outcomes of program completers (graduates) versus non-completers (dropouts). This has resulted in an ongoing methodological debate among scholars about how to measure the effectiveness of drug courts. Regardless, a plethora of research findings demonstrate support for drug courts in a reduction of rearrests; however, Goldkamp, White, and Robinson (2001) argued these findings merely depict that the successes “succeed” and the failures “fail” due to comparing drug court graduates to nongraduates. Yet, Francis and Reynolds (2015) argue that gathering data on non-completers is vital to our understanding of therapeutic jurisprudence. Their research found that even 30 days of treatment produced moderate harm reduction in a sample of non-completers.

How the comparison of drug court participants versus non-drug court participants’ performance is framed is critical to the interpretation of results and their validity (Goldkamp, White, & Robinson; 2001).

Although drug courts enjoy empirical support, the fact remains that some drug courts “work” for some offenders, some of the time (Shaffer, 2011). Many studies of drug treatment courts are small-scale evaluations that suffer from a number of limitations, such as reliance on pre-post designs for the treatment group only and post-only comparisons of the treatment group with dissimilar comparison groups (Belenko, 2001; Gottfredson, Najaka, & Kearley, 2003; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1997; Wilson, Mitchell, & MacKenzie, 2002).

Drug court participants have been found to have lower rates of recidivism compared with non-participants across a variety of settings (Banks & Gottfredson, 2004; Brewster, 2001; Goldkamp & Weiland, 1993; Gottfredson, Kearley, Najaka, & Rocha, 2007; Listwan, Sundt, Holsinger, & Latessa, 2003; Peters & Murrin, 2000; Shaffer, 2011; Spohn, Piper, Martin, & Frenzel, 2001; Vito & Tewksbury, 1998; Wolfe, Guydish, & Termondt, 2002). According to Spohn, Piper, Martin, and Frenzel (2001) after logistic regression analyses were conducted on recidivism rates for drug court participants, traditionally adjudicated offenders and diversion participants were compared. Their results revealed that drug court participants were significantly less likely than either traditionally adjudicated or diversion participants to be arrested during the follow-up period. The authors reported offender age, gender, and prior criminal history as factors contributing to positive relationships with rearrests.

Roll et al. (2005) conducted a logistic regression on 99 drug court enrollees finding two predictors of success and failure. While 50% of enrollees went on to graduate from the program, employed enrollees were more likely to complete drug court treatment while members with illicit IV drug use were more likely to drop out of the program prior to completion. Additionally, offenders with greater arrest history recidivated more quickly. Dynia and Sung (2000) found that those who completed a drug court treatment program had the lowest re-arrest rate among comparison groups examined in a 3-year follow-up.

Belenko (2001) reported on 37 evaluations and found positive conclusions on the impact of drug courts on long-term drug use, although this was reported with caution. Wilson, Mitchell, and MacKenzie (2006) reported from their study of 41 independent evaluations of drug courts that crime and drug use was reduced to a meaningful degree, despite concerns regarding unreliability of evidence related to the performance and outcomes of drug treatment courts (Gottfredson, Najaka, & Kearley, 2003; U.S. General Accounting Office, 2002). Wilson Mitchell, and MacKenzie (2006) conducted a review of 55 evaluations of drug courts for adults and juveniles. The authors reported drug court participants had lower rates of recidivism than similar offenders who did not participate in drug courts. Limitations of this study consisted of a lack of methodological rigor of evaluations (Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, & MacKenzie, 2012).

Shaffer (2011) conducted a meta-analysis on 76 distinct drug courts with stringent inclusion criteria. The author’s study supported the hypothesis that participation in drug courts reduces recidivism and success depends on the type of offenders it targets, the leverage it holds over them, expectations placed upon them, and the quality of their staff. Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, and MacKenzie (2012) conducted a more recent rigorous meta-analytic study of 154 independent evaluations. The mean effect sizes for this study indicated drug court participants have, on average, lower rates of general recidivism than non-drug court participants. The results of the study were conclusive that drug courts reduce recidivism in program graduates when compared to dropouts. However, several other meta-analyses have also found drug courts’ effectiveness in reducing recidivism to be weakest among the most methodologically rigorous evaluations (Belenko, 2001; Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, & MacKenzie, 2012; Shaffer, 2011; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1997; Wilson, Mitchell, & MacKenzie, 2006).

Other Types of Drug Courts

Juvenile Drug Courts

The first juvenile court was developed by Jane Addams in Chicago in the late 19th century (Parker, 1976). These courts have successfully guided troubled youth through delinquency issues now for over a century. Juvenile courts were expanded into juvenile drug courts in parallel with the development of adult courts in the mid 1990’s, due to a rise in cigarette use, alcohol, and illicit drug abuse during the crack epidemic (U.S. Department of Justice, 1983). These courts see teen substance abuse as a public health problem and, while these courts follow the same format as adult drug courts, they include a strengthened family component when possible. We know that youth with substance abuse problems tend to engage in risk-taking behaviors, socialize with other troubled juveniles, have problems with compliance in educational environments, have troubled family relationships, and are at a higher risk of developing co-morbid mental health issues than their non-delinquent counterparts (Nissen & Kraft, 2007).

The primary goals of juvenile drug courts are rehabilitation and diversion, which is in line with the goals of adult drug courts. Researchers have been examining the impact of juvenile drug courts for the past 20 years and have found juvenile courts to be of marginal value in reducing recidivism due to a variety of reasons including lack of infrastructure, the lack of age appropriate assessment tools and treatment protocols, and poor cross-system coordination (Nissan & Kraft, 2007; Stein, Homan, & DeBerard, 2015; Sullivan, Blair, Latessa, & Sullivan, 2016).

While the overarching goal is to deter further drug use and criminality, is adult criminality deterred by successful completion of juvenile drug court? In their review of the literature, Carter and Barker (2011) were unable to find studies examining the link between juvenile drug court participants and adult criminality. Thus, trying to establish a definitive link between drug court participation as a juvenile with future crime as an adult has not been well studied. Issues in studying this phenomenon include variations in terms of treatments and goals and the limited amount of research on which best and evidence-based practices demonstrate the effectiveness of juvenile drug courts.

Carter and Barker’s (2011) findings led them to conclude that graduating from juvenile drug court could lead to a reduction in adult felonies, but not necessarily misdemeanor offenses. Of the records they reviewed, only 30% of the juveniles graduated from drug court, which could lead to questions of the efficacy of the juvenile drug court from the beginning. They were particularly interested in how race might impact outcomes. Their results showed that non-whites who did not complete drug court committed future felonies and misdemeanors at rates of 83% and 79% respectively. Whites who failed to complete drug court were convicted of felonies and misdemeanors at rates of 17% and 21%, respectively. The authors note that when non-whites graduate from juvenile drug court, they were less likely to commit future crimes and drug court is actually beneficial for this demographic. The authors recommend that resources and efforts should be placed in getting more non-whites to juvenile drug courts and that future research should be centered around the effectiveness of juvenile drug court on certain individuals.

Family Drug Courts

Children who become involved with the child welfare system due to their parent’s substance abuse problems face grave circumstances, from being taken into state custody through the foster care system to the possibility of termination of parental rights. Drug courts focusing on families in the child welfare system began 20 years ago in support of reunification of these children and their families. Lloyd’s (2015) review of the literature found that children whose parents were involved with drug court spend less time in foster care and are more likely to be reunited with their families than their counterparts in the care of the state, whose substance abusing parents were not involved in family drug courts. These results have not come easily. Initially, the federal government’s Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) placed a two-year maximum on the time parents were given to seek recovery and actively participate in child welfare requirements to regain custody of their children. This Act put great pressure not only on child welfare workers, but also on judges not trained in the drug court model. Family drug courts represent an environment where judges, child welfare workers, attorneys, and treatment providers work together, understanding that recovery is not a linear two-year process (Schroeder, Lemieux, & Pogue, 2008).

Drug Courts for Women

Lyons (2013) found that women in a Canadian drug court believed they received harsher punishment than males. They had greater difficulty establishing therapeutic relationships with their treatment providers. They also expressed concern about the lack of confidentiality between themselves and their counselors, as counselors are mandated to report all information to the judge. Women were less likely to complete the assessment process, completed fewer hours in treatment than men, and were likely to drop out of treatment within 21 days. Researchers in the United States have found results on women’s drug court experience to be inconclusive (Butzin, Saum, & Scarpitti, 2002; Hickert, Boyle, & Tollefson, 2009). Some researchers report no gender differences in drug court outcomes (Brown et al., 2010). Others argue that women are often more successful than their male counterparts (Gray & Saum, 2005). In addition to the issues mentioned above, women often lack necessary support services including transportation and day care services. Women also tend to provide less personal details about their life circumstances or why they use drugs to the judge in open court (Lyons, 2013). As a result, frustrated judges may be more punitive in their sanctions.

Implications for Social Work Policy, Education, Practice, and Ethics


It is vital for all social workers to be reminded of the history of drug policy in the United States and how it has impacted the poor and oppressed in our society. Drug courts rely on moral disapproval and shaming to encourage compliance from their clients. Rehabilitative punishment’s reliance on moral degradation and profound efforts to shame drug users roots lie deep in this country’s history, where social meanings have been attached to the misuse or illicit use of substances. These social meanings have been major elements in the construction of drug policy in the United States (Bolt, 2010). The Harrison Act of 1914, commonly known as the Harrison Act, was the first broad-based legislation establishing the criminal prohibition of drug use (Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914). This act prohibited the medical community from treating patients suffering from addiction with maintenance doses of narcotics to prevent serious and potentially deadly withdrawal symptoms. Social meaning attached to this legislation associated addicts with criminality, making addiction a policing issue. This post-progressive era framed addiction as morally repugnant, an idea that grew throughout the 20th century and remains intact today. The moral tone took on greater meaning with Nixon’s War on Drugs, in the 1960s, arguing that drug use was a threat to the established order and must be severely punished. Drug use was seen as an act of rebellion against the State and would not be tolerated. Those using drugs were seen as a threat to the “fabric of the nation” and needed to be removed from society for its own sake.

Drug policy, being a policing issue, then became a criminal justice system issue resulting in overcrowded court dockets, jails, and prisons, filled largely with minority populations from poor inner city communities. Drug use and distribution was seen as not only repugnant behavior, but as a threat to communities outside inner city neighborhoods resulting in increased crime and violence (Bolt, 2010). As a result, congress passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws taking discretion away from judges, mandating them to rely on matrices that would define the letter of the law. This resulted in extremely long sentences for nonviolent drug users and the beginning of the prison industrial complex.

U.S. drug policy had effectively reduced massive numbers of primarily black and brown people to being “irremediably deficient.”

[These] totalizing moral judgments that pervasively are directed against drug users throughout American society, [make it] difficult even for professionals in the fields of social work and medicine to maintain an empathic and respectful stance toward clients and patients who suffer from drug used disorders.

(Burns & Peyrot, 2003, p. 417)

The foundation of drug court treatment is based on coercion. Upon arrest for a drug/alcohol crime, defendants are screened for potential drug court treatment and then offered a deal for their participation. They must abide by all rules or suffer sanctions including prison. Many argue that drug courts act as a means of social control through coercive tactics (Armstrong, 2008; Bolt, 2010; Brown et al., 2010; Colyer, 2015; Tiger, 2011). Tiger (2011) views drug courts through the lens of “coerced treatment,” arguing that there has always been a relationship between the criminal justice and drug treatment systems through the implementation of drug laws throughout the last century. Tiger also acknowledges that the operations of modern day drug courts stem from the implementation of mandatory sentences for drug convictions. These mandatory sentences led to prison overcrowding, and drug courts came into existence to address underlying issues with addiction. While drug courts can be characterized as a form of therapeutic jurisprudence, their actions are merely an enlightened approach that coerces anyone with drug involvement, and meeting court criteria, into drug treatment programs. The effectiveness of drug courts is measured by variables such as reduced recidivism, changes in skills, employment, education, and formation of healthy relationships; however, race and bias are key elements missing from the conversation surrounding drug courts. Finally, Tiger argues that although drug courts are an alternative to growing the prison industrial complex, systems that criminalize drug addiction are still intact with policies based on racial bias.

Education and Practice

It is vital that social work students be introduced to drug courts and how they function for students to gain better understanding of how addiction can bring their clients into contact with the criminal justice system. Drug courts are ideal settings for internship placements so that students can get hands-on experience in a court setting and can assist clients using a therapeutic jurisprudence model (Gallagher, 2015). However, social workers employed by drug courts face a number of quandaries related to the core values and ethical principles of the profession where respect for the dignity and worth of all people, the importance of human relationships, integrity, competence, and social justice are of paramount importance (NASW, 2008). As a result, social work in this field is sometimes uncomfortable for social workers. The core values and concepts that social workers operate from can be in direct contrast with the criminal justice system. For example, social workers value the dignity and worth of a person, whereas the criminal justice system does not approach offenders from that perspective and does not seek to assert the worth of offenders as human beings. Social workers are not required to be part of drug court teams, and for that reason, little research has been dedicated to this subject. However, given the structure and goals of drug courts, social workers should be involved in helping offenders reach and maintain the goals set forth by drug courts.

Some of the ten key components of drug court that social workers can implement include ensuring that offenders who can benefit from drug court are identified early for participation and are treated fairly throughout treatment, ensuring access to resources that can facilitate continued success once treatment has ended, and confirming accountability of the offender to the program; they can measure the drug court outcomes to evaluate effectiveness, interdisciplinary education, and the building of relationships within and across agencies and communities to ensure the drug court is successful. These components place social workers in a position to advocate for offenders and policies that are reflective of the core values that social workers operate from. Additionally, it offers social workers the opportunity to continue research in this area to tie in evidence-based practices and program evaluation models to facilitate drug courts in achieving their intended mission (Roberts, Phillips, Bordelon, & Seif, 2014).


The importance of human relationships and the ability to engage individuals as partners in the helping process is vital when attempting to get offenders into drug treatment courts where they will be required to remain or face detrimental circumstances. Commitment to the client is of utmost importance; the client’s interests should be the primary consideration and confidentiality assured. However, social workers should always remain cognizant of the potential harm of dual roles and remember that they are required to provide input in the drug court proceedings where confidentiality no longer exists. This can pose a threat to the client-worker relationship and damage future trust and communications. The NASW Code of Ethics (2008) does state that, while client’s interest is primary, the “responsibility to larger society or specific legal obligations may, on limited occasions, supersede loyalty owed clients.” We, as a profession, should make conscious efforts to debate whether current drug court and drug policies warrant superseding loyalty to our clients.

All social workers should recognize the value of service; helping those in need and addressing social injustices must be taken into consideration by challenging oppressive drug policies that imprison tens of thousands of black and brown people every year. We should be advocating for social change on the behalf of the oppressed and vulnerable living with addiction, struggling with unemployment and discrimination, and lacking access to health and mental health systems of care. Drug courts may be the best option for accessing services and providing hope for brighter futures. Social workers can provide a strong link in Tauber’s chain link fence.


Special thanks to Don Clausen, PhD., ABD, Demetria McDonald, MSW, and Courtney Schroeder, JD for their assistance with both content and editing.


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