What began as an experiment in Miami less than a decade ago is
now emerging as one of the most significant reforms to the American
criminal justice system in the last half century.
In city after city, the latest research shows that drug courts
are significantly slowing the revolving door of justice by
addressing the root causes of crime.
Unlike traditional criminal courts, drug courts operate under
the idea that if a drug addict steals to support his or her habit,
it makes sense to stop the thefts by first treating the addiction.
Rather than focusing on punishing nonviolent drug abusers by
throwing them in prison, drug courts seek to solve the underlying
problems that lead an individual toward criminal activities.
Yet the courts aren't without their detractors. Critics say
speciality courts are expensive, and they divert money from other
cases that are more pressing. Some, too, argue that the courts are
too "soft" on criminals - placing more emphasis on treatment than
Still, their success in reducing repeat-offender rates has been
"If you can reduce the individual's demand for drugs then you
are going to reduce the need for that individual to commit criminal
acts to buy drugs," says Margaret Beaudry, research director at
Drug Strategies, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
The first drug court was set up in Miami in 1989 as a way to
reduce the number of drug abusers clogging local jails. It has
since grown into a national phenomenon. Today there are 200 drug
courts fully operational and another 100 planning to open,
according to a recent report by Drug Strategies.
The specialized courts are located in 48 states and Washington,
D.C. and have handled 40,000 arrested drug users. More than 24,000
have successfully completed a drug court program.
"We are seeing dramatic reductions in recidivism. They aren't
committing crimes anymore. They are getting jobs, supporting their
families, helping their kids," says Ms. Beaudry.
A growing record of success is converting skeptics. "I think it
is fair to say that probably by the year 2000 we may see drug
courts in a substantial portion of jurisdictions in the country,"
says Jeffrey Tauber, a former drug court judge in Oakland, Calif.,
and president of the National Association of Drug Court
A survey of the 50 oldest drug courts found that 70 percent of
drug court participants had either overcome their addictions and
been released from the court-sponsored programs or were still in
treatment. By comparison, success rates at stand-alone drug
treatment facilities approach 30 percent, experts say, with roughly
70 percent of patients dropping out. …