Drug Court Versus Treatment—Finding the Right Solution

Healthcare and Law

In a nation that struggles with a drug addiction epidemic, our society rapidly seeks solutions and methodology for reducing the drug problem. The drug crisis has steadily grown to become an ongoing and brutal issue that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused millions to become addicted to drugs just since the turn of the century.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “In 2017, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year, including 14.5 million people who had an alcohol-use disorder and 7.5 million people who had an illicit drug-use disorder. An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid-use disorder, which includes 1.7 million people with a prescription pain reliever-use disorder and 0.7 million people with a heroin-use disorder.”

We’ve come up with a lot of ways to address addiction, not all of which have been successful. One such approach is the use of a drug court, a department within the criminal justice system that seeks to guide drug offenders through various programs designed to help them improve their condition while also redressing their wrongs.

What Is Drug Court?

Let’s look at the definition of drug courts. According to the National Institute of Justice: “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.”

“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.”

As of 2015, over 3,000 drug courts were operating in the United States. These programs address multiple types of drug cases, including drug and alcohol-using parents who are trying to get custody rights, DWI (or DUI) offenders, juvenile drug offenders, veterans with drug addictions, Child Protective Services cases, Native American tribal cases, and so on. The idea behind drug courts is to use the criminal justice system to discipline and reform a drug offender instead of merely tossing them in a jail cell and leaving them there.

Why Drug Courts Don’t Work for Addicts

Drug addict at the court.

The idea behind drug courts is not a wrong one. We can see the logic. The goal was to create a system that treated non-violent offenders who had committed crimes involving drugs and to do so in a more sophisticated, less punitive way than traditional criminal justice policy allowed for.

But there is a reason why drug courts ultimately don’t work—or at least why they don't work well.

Drug courts don’t work because they don’t put nearly enough emphasis on the treatment of addicts through residential care. Drug courts are immensely complicated, administration-intensive, long-term, and exhaustive of resources. But the one thing that drug courts should focus on that often gets left out is an effective treatment of addiction. In a lengthy explanation of the parts and aspects of drug courts, the National Institute of Justice only affords a single, four-letter sentence that mentions the treatment of addiction as being a part of the drug court model.

The drug court model includes:

  • Screening of the offender and assessing risks, necessary steps, responsibility, essential guidance, etc.
  • Judicial interaction with the offender.
  • Monitoring of the offender, supervision, drug testing, follow-up, etc.
  • Incentives and rewards for good behavior and the following of the drug court program.
  • Treatment and rehabilitation services.

Even though treatment and rehabilitation services are mentioned in the drug court model, it's not often that this step receives primary focus, and rarer yet that addicts going through drug court are directed to qualified, residential, long-term drug and alcohol treatment programs.

It's not easy to find published statistics on drug courts, and even the statistics which are available are somewhat broad and vague. But what we do know is that according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, addicts who go through drug court stand a 56 percent chance of continuing to use drugs, whereas addicts who simply go through traditional criminal justice programs stand a 76 percent chance of continuing to use drugs.

And this is meant to be the gold standard for addressing addiction within the criminal justice system? I see no world in which a 56 percent rate of continued drug use is something to get excited about. What about a 10 percent use rate? Or better yet, a zero percent use rate? Maybe if drug courts supported addiction treatment through residential rehab as their priority, drug court participants would not continue to use drugs at a rate of 56 percent of drug court participants.

Drug courts ultimately do not work for addicts because the drug court system does not adequately address the reasons why the person struggles with addiction in the first place. Drug court theory asserts that, with community activity and support, assistance from the family, the presence of law enforcement, community service, educational services, and perhaps a counseling session or two that the offender's “lousy habit” can be sort of “administrated away.”

But as any addict, recovering addict, or family member of an addict will undoubtedly know, addiction is a lot more complicated than that. Everything that drug courts try to work on with their participants is good and should be encouraged, but drug courts are missing a key step here, i.e., treatment.

The Ideal Approach to Addiction

Woman is helping an addict.

Drug users almost always find themselves caught by the long arm of the law. Drug use by itself is illegal, and much of the activities that are surrounded by drug use are also unlawful. Buying drugs, selling drugs, transporting drugs, simply possessing drugs, stealing to get money for drugs, using someone else in some way to get drugs, prostitution for drugs, blackmail or coercion to get hold of drugs, are all activities that tend to relate to drugs which are illegal.

Because of this, addicts often end up in the criminal justice system. And we can see the fundamental principles behind that. We want to create an ethical, moral, pleasant society. When people do wrong things, we want a system that can correct their wrongdoings while also preventing them from doing further wrong. That’s how we got the criminal justice system.

But the problem is, the criminal justice system is not effective in helping addicts to stop being addicts. Only residential drug addiction treatment can do that.

While this is not an article meant to support decriminalization, legalization, or any other approach that makes drug use more available and more approachable for people, this is an article meant to encourage treatment of addicts over other methods. We have to treat addicts through residential drug and alcohol rehab centers. Drug courts, time served, outpatient counseling through the drug court system might be genuine efforts to help drug offenders but none of it will work unless we get to the bottom of what caused the person to commit drug-related crimes in the first place—i.e., his or her addiction.

Sometimes an addict needs a wake-up call to get them to realize their dire circumstances, and time spent in jail or drug court can provide that wake-up call. But the solution to addiction lies in a rehab center, not a jail cell. If you know someone who struggles with drug use or heavy drinking, do your best to get them connected with residential addiction treatment. It will save their life.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.