The first drug court in the U.S. took shape in Miami-Dade County, Florida in 1989 as a response to the growing crack-cocaine problem plaguing the city. Chief Judge Gerald Wetherington, Judge Herbert Klein, then State Attorney Janet Reno and Public Defender Bennett Brummer designed the court for nonviolent offenders to receive treatment. This model of court system quickly became a popular method for dealing with the ever increasing number of drug offenders. Between 1984 and 1999, the number of defendants charged with a drug offense in the Federal courts increased 247%, from 11,854 to 29,306. By 1999 there were 472 drug courts in the nation and by 2005 that number had increased to 1262 with another 575 drug courts in the planning stages; currently all 50 states have working drug courts.
Most drug courts do not accept all offenders of drug related crime, often choosing to rule out violent offenders and those that sell drugs. Some courts choose to screen out offenders that are considered a risk. Some courts prefer offenders who have gone through treatment previously while others prefer the opposite. In the first 4 years of the Miami drug court, roughly 20% of all offenders of drug related crimes were accepted into the court.
The Judge’s Role
The judge provides the structure by which to live and enforces the rules of the program and uses incentives to encourage offenders to remain in the program and on the right track. One tool the judge has available is the drug screen, a process that checks offenders for recent drug use. Judges often have discretion as to how frequently an offender is checked. It is important that a judge check often enough to discourage drug use while not so often as to alienate an offender’s trust. The judge also has the option to punish or be lenient with an offender that has strayed from the program or broken the rules. Usual punishments include jail time or the expulsion from the drug court program.
Treatment centers are responsible for the actual curing of the addiction and there exists a fundamental relationship between their success and the success of the offenders. Communities often experience difficulty properly funding treatment centers and often rely on existing treatment centers to donate facility and employee time to aid the court. Drug courts can affect a treatment center’s ability to effectively treat offenders due to an overwhelming increase in the number of patients. Success of a treatment center also depends on the methods of treatment used and level of employee training. A good scenario for drug courts is for all treatment centers that specialize in a single drug or patient type to be available to the drug court for use.
Incentives For Success
The factors that keep a drug offender within the drug court system vary between courts, but common incentives include increased jail time for failure, the promise of charges being dropped for success, and the support of the treatment centers. Offenders who lie to judges or suffer from a relapse are often given a week in jail or, if the behavior continues, can be removed from the program all together, often resulting in stiff jail time sentences. Positive incentives can include high school equivalency or GED programs, vocational training, and a graduation ceremony with a certificate of completion. Often programs are designed to involve multiple stages, which reward offenders with increased freedom as they reach each stage. Drug courts may also have alumni programs for those who have successfully completed the program. This allows graduates to give back to the community, aid the drug court, and help current offenders.
Recidivism rates for offenders who have graduated from drug courts are generally considerably better than recidivism rates of offenders who did not partake in a drug court program. The average recidivism rate for those who complete the drug court program is between 4% and 29% as compared to 48% for those who do not participate in a drug court program. A 2003 recidivism report by the Urban Institute and Caliber Associates, entitled, "Recidivism Rates For Drug Court Graduates: National Based Estimates," representative of over 17,000 annual drug court graduates nationwide, found that recidivism rates for drug court participants one year after graduation is a mere 16.5% and only 27.5% after two years. However, the report acknowledges that these numbers may underestimate the actual recidivism rates as they are based on FBI statistical information that may not included arrests that states did not report to the FBI.
In 2003 the Center for Court Innovation released a report that analyzed the impact of the New York State drug court system. The study found that the re-conviction rate among 2,135 defendants who participated in six of the state’s drug courts was, on average, 29 percent lower (13% to 47%) over three years than the for the same types of offenders who did not enter the drug court. Many local studies have found similar recidivism rates.