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Drug Courts Grow Up

As drug courts spread across the world, new standards and best practices aim to hold them all accountable.
(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

“Drug courts are under the spotlight right now,” says Terrence Walton, director of standards at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “We get lots of great press. But also other press as well.”

Drug courts are diversion programs that offer chemically dependent offenders the chance to get treatment and access to social services as an alternative to incarceration. From just one experimental program in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989, drug courts have grown and spread such that there are 2,900 in the United States; 13 countries around the world have developed them as well.

In that time, the drug court model has been one of the most intensely studied and evaluated aspects of the entire criminal justice system. And it has not been without its detractors. Judges and staff of these programs have sometimes faced criticism—including in the pages of this magazine—for making the wrong decisions about participants’ medical needs, for imposing overly harsh punishments on their offenders, and for focusing their efforts on the wrong clientele.

Drug court professionals are hungry for the scientific research and the instruction that will help them improve both their own methods and the larger criminal justice cultures they exist in.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, the negative press isn’t wholly off basis,” Walton says. “There are still a handful of courts out there that aren’t operating according to standards. And it’s hard to answer that other than to say, these courts aren’t representative of drug courts by and large.”

To that end, Walton and the rest of the NADCP released a new set of standards and best practices at the organization’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., which began on Sunday. They make up Volume II, the second half of the extensive standards first published last year, which advised programs about the best court procedures, and the best medical and psychological treatments for drug addiction. For instance, Volume I states that medically assisted opioid treatments like methadone have been shown to help addicted offenders recover, and so people using these replacement therapies should not be excluded from drug court programs for that reason.

In Volume II, the standards expand to include instructions on getting people better access to social services, drug testing during treatment, and how to scale resources to match the size of the population going through the programs, among other things. Like the first publication, the new standards were written after analyzing an enormous amount of peer-reviewed scientific research about what has been shown to work over the past 26 years, and what hasn’t.

“The aim of the first couple decades of drug courts was to spread drug courts,” says Walton. “We said, ‘We want a drug court in reach of every individual in need.’ Well, now that we have almost 3,000 drug courts across the country and in every single state, we want a drug court that works in reach of everyone in need.”

Part of knowing “what works” is knowing who drug courts work for, and Walton says that has been an important learning process. In the 1990s, early drug courts tended to be diversion programs for low-level offenders with low levels of drug addiction. Over time, practitioners have found that, not only were the requirements of the program too rigorous for those kinds of offenders to successfully complete them, but that the kinds of offenders who actually needed help the most were being excluded.

Instead, the people who are constantly cycling in and out of the system, and whose addictions are preventing them from making real progress, are actually better candidates for drug court diversion—with all of the discipline and the focused care that it entails. That shift in thinking was important, Walton says. It was “the admission that drug courts really are not the best option for folks who could do just fine without all the services that we offer.”

Drug court judges and administrators agree. “Initially, we wanted the addict,” says Judge Jim Sullivan, now a circuit judge in St. Louis who was previously a drug court commissioner there for 12 years. “But we weren’t identifying or targeting that individual very well. We put everyone in the same program, and provided them all with the same services.”

Now, the St. Louis drug court has much better tools and methods in place than when it first opened up in 1997—both for screening and identifying the right people to be diverted into the drug court, and for figuring out what kinds of help they need. Mickey Williams, the drug court administrator in St. Louis, says that her court now divides its clientele into different levels of addiction, and then groups people in both court dockets and counseling sessions so that people are surrounded by peers with similar needs to their own.

The St. Louis drug court has also expanded from an 11-month program to a 15-month program, in response to the first set of best practices the NADCP put out a few years ago. And it now has staff members providing drug court participants with social services—like physicians, psychologists, housing and career counselors, and Medicare caseworkers—all in-house, right where people need them.

"The reason drug courts work so well is that you have the leverage of the criminal justice system to keep people in treatment long enough for them to be successful."

Williams adds that drug court treatment now encompasses much more than just the physical addiction itself. It also must address the psychological factors that led to (and that can still encourage) drug use. There is much more research available now than previously—on the long-lasting impact of trauma, for instance, and how to confront it.

“It’s not just the trauma of the individual’s life and what they’ve faced before they arrive here,” says Williams, “it’s the trauma of simply learning to live on the streets, and having to figure out how to manipulate and survive. These issues probably have a great bearing on an individual’s recovery.”

Now that the new standards and best practices have been released, NADCP staff say that spreading the word and keeping courts all accountable is the next, crucial challenge.

“Programs that ignore best practices and fail to attend training conferences are the ones most likely to produce ineffective or harmful results,” reads the introduction to Volume II, “and thus to diminish the effects of Drug Courts and tarnish the reputation of the field.”

From what the NADCP’s Terrence Walton has seen and heard from out in the field, he says, drug court professionals are hungry for the scientific research and the instruction that will help them improve both their own methods and the larger criminal justice cultures they exist in. When they can’t yet live up to the best practices, it’s because of a lack of resources, not a lack of dedication. Rural drug courts sometimes lack funding; urban drug courts can be in too high a demand. But, Walton says, it’s been interesting to see drug courts thrive in communities that are all very different from each other, in policy and politics.

And as much as they believe in, and advocate for, this model, NADCP staff say that drug courts aren’t a cure-all for addiction in society. They agree that chemical dependence is and should be acknowledged to be a public health issue, and not just a criminal justice one.

“But we still have to have something in place for the addicted people who are going to commit crimes that are going to send them to jail. It’s not an either-or, and there’s no one solution,” says Chris Deutsch, NADCP’s director of communications. “The reason drug courts work so well is that you have the leverage of the criminal justice system to keep people in treatment long enough for them to be successful.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.