What Are Drug Courts And Do They Work?

One specific part of the OhioSTART intervention is something referred to as “family treatment drug courts.” Readers might ask themselves: What are drug courts and do they work? So let’s answer the first question: What are drug courts? Drug courts are “specialized court docket programs that target criminal defendants and offenders, juvenile offenders, and parents with pending child welfare cases who have alcohol and other drug dependency problems.”

In other words, drug courts specifically target offenders that have a history of problematic substance use. The main idea behind drug courts is to divert offenders with substance use issues to treatment instead of jail. The primary goals of drug courts are to lower recidivism, reduce substance use, and help rehabilitate individuals. The drug court model is unique because of the multidisciplinary teams they employ and the comprehensive resources that they entail.

Social workers and treatment professionals work alongside the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys that are typically seen in the courtroom setting. Drug courts are characterized by close interactions with the judge, incentives and sanctions for behaviors, monitoring through drug testing, linkage with treatment, and celebration of accomplishments through graduations.

Now let’s address the second question: Are drug courts effective? The short answer is yes, they tend to be. An analysis of around 2000 drug court graduates found that less than 20% were re-arrested within one year and less than 30% were re-arrested within two years of drug court graduation. But they are not only effective in reducing recidivism. A national study comparing drug court participants with those not enrolled in such program found that drug court enrollees entered addiction treatment faster, stayed there longer, and were more likely to be reunified with their children.

Lastly, drug courts also have an economic value. The White House highlighted this aspect when it referred to a study that found that “every $1 spent on drug courts yields more than $2 in savings in the criminal justice system alone”. All of this is not to say that drug courts are flawless or that they are 100% effective, but offering these specialized dockets to offenders with addiction histories seems to be of value.


National Institute of Justice. (2020). Overview of drug courts. Retrieved from: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/overview-drug-courts

Office of National Drug Control Policy. (n.d.). Drug courts. Retrieved from: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp/ondcp-fact-sheets/drug-courts-smart-approach-to-criminal-justice

Roman, J., Townsend, W., & Bhati, A. S. (2003). Recidivism rates for drug court graduates: Nationally based estimates.