How Drug Courts Work

These problem-solving courts involve a team of professionals helping defendants overcome substance abuse issues.

Drug courts are a variation of the current push for alternative sentencing. Founded in the late 1980s, they originally dealt with first-time drug offenders but now admit some recidivists. They were born of skepticism about the efficacy of traditional courts dealing with substance abusers. Their ultimate goal is rehabilitation.

Not Your Typical Court

Drug courts are typically reserved for nonviolent offenders, often meaning that neither the subject offense nor any previous offenses by the defendant were violent. (Some drug courts don’t even deal with crime, but rather parents facing child welfare cases.)

Drug courts are somewhat similar to diversion programs, but usually occur after guilty pleas. In a slightly different setting than the usual courtroom, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys work together to keep defendants enrolled in treatment programs for a certain minimum period of time.

Attorneys in drug courts don’t speak as advocates on behalf of their clients—the judge actually talks directly to defendants, who must in turn answer directly. The treatment programs include counseling, education, and job training, along with regular, frequent court appearances and drug testing.


Eligible defendants typically have the choice of entering a drug court program. For example, a program may condition its availability on the defendant pleading guilty. After the guilty plea, the drug court judge or commissioner will likely require the defendant to make regular court appearances.

Positive Outcomes

Typically, defendants who successfully complete a drug court treatment program can effectively undo the criminal conviction that led to the drug court participation or at least have the sentence reduced. On the other hand, failure to complete a drug treatment program may result in imprisonment or other penalties.

The results from drug courts have so positive that these courts have grown exponentially. By the mid-1990s, there were some 80 drug courts nationwide. As of 2012, there were over 2,600. Studies show, among other achievements, significantly less recidivism in drug court graduates than among regularly sentenced defendants.

Consult an Attorney

If you’ve been charged with a drug offense or a different offense but suffer from addiction or alcoholism, consult with a local experienced criminal defense lawyer. Such a lawyer can analyze your case and advise you of sentencing options, including whether drug court is available in your jurisdiction and whether you might be eligible for it.

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