In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Drug Courts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins, History, and Political Support
  • Comparative Studies
  • Funding
  • The Legal (and Jurisdictional) Basis for Drug Courts and other Specialty Courts
  • Juvenile Drug Courts
  • Drug Courts and Race
  • Medication Assisted Treatment (and Harm Reduction)

Criminology Drug Courts
Richard Boldt, James L. Nolan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0261


Several thousand drug courts operate in jurisdictions throughout the United States. Similar courts have been established in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The first drug court appeared in Dade County, Florida, in 1989. This initial effort and other first-generation drug courts helped to establish a model for subsequent problem-solving courts focused on substance use disorders, mental illness, domestic violence, and other circumstances that frequently co-occur with criminal justice system involvement. A range of problem-solving courts—including mental health courts, DUI (driving under the influence) courts, veterans courts, prostitution courts, re-entry courts, and gambling courts—have been developed both in the United States and internationally based on the drug court model. The design of these specialty courts emphasizes collaboration rather than an adversarial due-process-based approach to decision-making, therapeutic interventions instead of the legal resolution of disputed cases, and informal, individualized engagement by judges and other court actors. Key features of the drug court model include the placement of defendants in treatment programs, the close judicial monitoring of defendants though periodic status hearings, and the use of criminal penalties as leverage to retain defendants in treatment. Some drug courts engage criminal defendants prior to the adjudication of their charges, but increasingly these courts operate post-plea with the imposition of program requirements as conditions of probation or a suspended sentence. Drug courts have been a politically popular response to the problems of over-incarceration and criminal system overload produced in part by the late-20th-century “war on drugs.” Outcome studies often report successes in reducing drug use and criminal recidivism. Significant critiques of the drug court model and of problem-solving courts more generally have been offered, however, raising questions about the reliability of the outcome studies and about other negative consequences of the model, including net-widening, debasement of the therapeutic intentions of the enterprise, and other distortions in both the behavioral health treatment system and the criminal justice system.

General Overviews

A number of works provide useful general overviews of drug courts and the drug court movement. Harrison, et al. 2002 and Nolan 2002 are edited volumes that contain contributions from leading scholars and practitioners in the field. Both volumes provide a valuable introduction to and theoretical assessments of drug courts and both offer a comparative analysis of drug courts outside of the United States. The drug court movement has received strong institutional support from a variety of organizations, including the Center for Court Innovation and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Berman and Feinblatt 2001, written by authors affiliated with the Center for Court Innovation, provides an enthusiastic account of the development of drug courts and other “problem-solving courts” and describes their chief operational characteristics. The report Drug Court Standards Committee, National Association of Drug Court Professionals 1997 sets out ten “key components” of drug courts that have become a standard framework for describing and assessing these courts. Mitchell 2011 and Longshore, et al. 2001 are additional resources that provide useful information on the characteristic features of drug courts, and Miller 2009 offers a more critical description that seeks to place the expansion of drug courts within the context of a shifting criminal justice system paradigm. Nolan 2001 is an ethnographic account that also sets the drug court movement in a larger social and political context.

  • Berman, Greg, and John Feinblatt. 2001. Problem-solving courts: A brief primer. Law and Policy 23:125–140.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9930.00107

    This article links the development of drug courts and subsequent problem-solving courts to “rising caseloads and increasing frustration—both among the public and among system players—with the standard approach to case processing in the state courts” (p. 128).

  • Drug Court Standards Committee, National Association of Drug Court Professionals. 1997. Defining drug courts: The key components. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance.

    Outlines ten key components of drug courts and discusses the purposes and performance benchmarks related to each component.

  • Harrison, Lana, Frank R. Scarpitti, Menachem Amir, and Stanley Einstein, eds. 2002. Drug courts: Current issues and future perspectives. Huntsville, TX: Office of International Criminal Justice.

    An edited overview of the drug court movement, with eleven contributing chapters, that includes theoretical assessments, outcomes evaluation studies, considerations of the treatment features of drug courts, and comparative assessments of the drug court movement in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

  • Longshore, Douglas, Susan Turner, Suzanne Wenzel, et al. 2001. Drug courts: A conceptual framework. Journal of Drug Issues 31:7–26.

    DOI: 10.1177/002204260103100103

    Discussion of the relationship between the structural and process characteristics of drug courts.

  • Miller, Eric J. 2009. Drugs, courts, and the new penology. Stanford Law and Policy Review 20:417–462.

    A detailed discussion of how bipartisan support for drug courts has emphasized a “politics of personal responsibility” and has de-emphasized the race and class dimensions of criminal law and drug control policy.

  • Mitchell, Ojmarrh. 2011. Drug and other specialty courts. In The Oxford handbook of crime and criminal justice. Edited by Michael Tonry, 843–871. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This article provides a good overview of drug courts and places their development within the larger context of specialty courts more generally. It describes the key features of these courts, reviews the evidence of their effectiveness, and evaluates the long-term viability of these efforts.

  • Nolan, James L., Jr. 2001. Reinventing justice: The American drug court movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive examination of the drug court movement in the United States, which, based on a careful ethnographic study of twenty-one drug courts, situates the movement within the historical context of US drug policy over time and considers the consequences of the movement, particularly as it concerns its advancement of a reinvented understanding of justice.

  • Nolan, James L., Jr. 2002. Drug courts: In theory and in practice. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    An edited collection of eleven chapters, which includes case studies of individual drug courts in the United States, theoretical assessments of various innovative features of the new drug court model, and discussions of the emergence of drug courts in the United Kingdom.

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