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Drug Courts as an Alternative to Incarceration

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An estimated 50% of the 7 million individuals under criminal justice supervision meet the criteria for diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence. But punishment alone is a futile and ineffective response to drug abuse, failing as a public safety intervention for offenders whose criminal behavior is directly related to drug use.


  • In many jurisdictions, some individuals with drug problems (typically non-violent) are sentenced to a specialized drug court as an alternative to incarceration. FL established the first drug court 1989; today more than 2600 drug courts operate in all 50 states.
  • Drug courts typically mandate addiction treatment, often offer other human services, and typically require regular drug tests and judicial meetings to assess progress.
  • Drug court judges have the power to provide rewards and penalties to offenders, potentially including expunging a conviction if the individual makes sufficient progress.

Drug courts reduce drug use and re-arrest for non-violent, drug-involved offenders.  Because they are resource-intensive, they may better be reserved for more complex cases in which the individual has not responded to less resource-intensive supervision (e.g., 24/7 Sobriety).

Key Policy Evidence:

  • Individuals who participated in prison-based treatment followed by a community-based program post-incarceration were 7 times more likely to be drug free and 3 times less likely to be arrested for criminal behavior than those not receiving treatment.
  • Offenders randomly assigned to drug court were over 4 times  more likely to receive addiction treatment and were two-thirds less likely to be re-arrested compared with individuals under typical supervision in one rigorous study.
  • A comprehensive drug court system typically costs between $2,500-$4,000 annually for each offender, compared to $20,000-$50,000 per person per year to incarcerate a drug-using offender.
  • One dollar spent on drug courts is estimated to save approximately $4 in avoided costs of incarceration and health care, and prison-based treatment saves between $2 to $6.
  • Replacing incarceration for drug-related offenses with treatment referrals is not effective if it is not accompanied by drug court monitoring. Fewer than 25% of offenders so referred under California‚Äôs Proposition 36 showed up at treatment and completed it.
  • Recidivism drops, on average, by 38%-50% among adult drug court participants, according to a review of 154 evaluations
  • Drug court effectiveness varies significantly. Research suggests that results are best when the court uses a transparent, consistent approach to applying sanctions, has significant leverage over the offender, and employs a uniform model (i.e., all offenders are either pre-plea or post-plea).