DEA Lawyers Explain the Benefits of Drug Court and Diversion Programs


The Benefits of Drug Courts and Diversion Programs

Drug courts and diversion programs offer a compassionate alternative to incarceration for people struggling with addiction. Instead of locking folks up, these collaborative courts focus on getting people the treatment they need while still holding them accountable.

I’ve seen firsthand how drug courts can transform lives. As a public defender, I’ve represented many clients who were able to get sober and turn their lives around thanks to these programs. Sure, they require hard work and personal responsibility–participants have to show up for frequent court appearances, comply with treatment, and stay clean. But the rewards are real.

Unlike the adversarial nature of traditional criminal courts, drug courts take a team approach. The judge, attorneys, probation officers, treatment counselors, and peer mentors all work together to support each participant’s recovery. There’s a focus on incentives and praise rather than punishment.

How Drug Courts Got Started

The first drug court launched in Miami, Florida in 1989 at the height of the crack epidemic. Judge Herbert Klein realized that the standard punishments weren’t working. People with addiction would get locked up, then released with no treatment only to repeat the cycle again and again.

Judge Klein pioneered a new model–offering treatment and close supervision to appropriate offenders instead of jail time. The idea caught on quick. Today there are over 3,000 drug courts across the country[1].

Eligibility and Structure

Drug courts aren’t for everyone. Violent offenders and drug traffickers don’t qualify. Only nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction are eligible.

If accepted, participants plead guilty and agree to complete the 12-18 month program instead of going to trial and potentially prison. The requirements are strict, including:

  • Frequent court appearances (weekly or bi-weekly)
  • Random drug testing (2-3 times per week)
  • Outpatient counseling and/or residential treatment
  • Curfews and other probation-like controls
  • Getting and keeping a job

It’s a heavy load, but achieving and maintaining sobriety is the end goal. Small sanctions like writing essays or sitting in the jury box are used for infractions instead of kicking people out of the program.

“The drug court team doesn’t want to punish or embarass anyone struggling in recovery,” explains Judge Alicia Smith, who oversees a drug court in Ohio. “We want to motivate and encourage them to get back on track.”

Proven Results

Study after study shows that drug courts reduce substance abuse and related crimes much more effectively than traditional courts. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 75% of drug court graduates remain arrest-free for at least two years[2].

Other research found that drug courts decrease crime by 8-26% on average compared to regular adjudication[3]. And the cost savings are tremendous–up to $27 for every $1 invested according to a report from the National Institute of Justice[4].

Many participants see even more profound changes. “Drug court didn’t just help me get sober–it gave me my life back,” shares Susan R., 37. “I was homeless and committing crimes daily when I got arrested. Now I’ve been clean four years, have a job and apartment, and get to be a mother to my kids.”

Criticisms and Limitations

While drug courts have plenty of fans, they also have their fair share of critics. Defense attorneys sometimes argue that participants give up certain rights by pleading guilty upfront. And some treatment advocates say that the programs are still too punitive in nature.

There are also limitations in terms of who can participate. Violent offenders don’t qualify, nor do people facing drug distribution charges. And resources vary widely by jurisdiction–some drug courts have long wait lists due to lack of funding.

Additionally, relapse is part of recovery. Not everyone who enters the program will graduate. “We wish we could help everyone be successful, but addiction is a cunning disease,” says Judge Smith. “Even so, the majority of participants make tremendous progress.”

The Bottom Line

Are drug courts perfect? No. But they provide meaningful accountability, treatment, and hope rather than simply locking people up. They facilitate long-term recovery and help rebuild lives damaged by addiction.

Our country still relies too heavily on incarceration in my opinion. Drug courts and diversion programs are a compassionate step in the right direction. We need to incorporate more restorative practices like this in the justice system.