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Just WHAT Made DRUG COURTS Successful?

By Burke, Kevin S. | Judicature, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

Just WHAT Made DRUG COURTS Successful?

Burke, Kevin S., Judicature

Drug courts have expanded greatly since their introduction in 1989; what made them successful is a focus on procedural fairness.

In the early 1970s, the United States saw a wave of new laws imposing dramatically harsher penalties for drug convictions.1 Court systems already inundated with serious offenses were flooded wirh drug cases as arrests for clrug-reliued crimes in the United Stavesjuvnped from 322,000 in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 1998.· Recidivism rates were horrible/1 Those recidivism rates contributed to giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.1

In response to the influx of drug cases. New York City created specialized ''narcotics courts" to help manage the growing caseload.5 These courts became known as "N Parts" and functioned as "specialized case management courts designed to handle a high volume of drug cases in a traditional manner."'1 The "N Parts," however, had no additional treatment component for drug offenders.

The country's first treatmentbased drug court was established in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida/ Judge Herbert M. Klein, along with the Dade County Attorney, Janet Reno, and a number of other officials, including Hillary Clinton's brother who was then a public defender, designed the court to introduce supervised drug treatment into the criminal justice system.

Recognizing the need for treatment and believing the first drug courts to be successful, officials around the country began establishing treatment-based drug courts to deal with offenders through individualized treatment and monitoring programs/ As United States Attorney General, Janet Reno became a champion of drug courts and paved the way for an influx of federal funds to plan and start the effort. There are currently more than 1600 drug courts operating in 50 stales,'1 as well as in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and a number of Native American Tribal Courts.10

Drug courts around the country operate in different ways and achieve a wide variety of outcomes. If there is any singular description of these courts, it is that each operates according to its own unique protocol. They have their own local legal culture. However, the theory behind their operation is largely the same: drug courts use the criminal justice system to treat drug addiction through judicially monitored treatment rather than mere incarceration or probation." Judges supervise the defendants in a more intense fashion than traditional courts and develop interpersonal relationships with defendants that would rarely occur in a more traditional court. The National Drug Court Institute describes drug courts as follows: "Drug courts represent the coordinated efforts of the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social service, and treatment communities to actively and forcefully intervene and break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction, and crime."12

In most instances, drug courts accept defendants who have been charged with drug possession or another non-violent offense and who either tested positive for drugs or had a known substance abuse problem at the time of their arrest.1* Many drug courts exclude defendants with current or prior violent offenses.1'1 Persons "who are currently facing charges for a drug offense may be denied entry into the drug court because of a past, wholly unrelated offense."1'1 Also, those drug courts that receive federal funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance are required to accept only détendants who meet certain criteria.16

Drug courts generally operate under one of two models: deferred prosecution programs or post-adjudication programs.17 Deferred prosecution programs divert certain eligible defendants to the drug-court system before they plead to a charge. Post-adjudication programs, on the other hand, require a defendant to first plead guilty to the charge before making treatment options available.

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Just WHAT Made DRUG COURTS Successful?


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