Search Penny Hill Press

Friday, October 15, 2010

Drug Courts: Background, Effectiveness, and Policy Issues for Congress

Celinda Franco
Specialist in Crime Policy

Drug courts are specialized court dockets, or portions of judges’ calendars of cases, that generally target nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems. These programs provide offenders with intensive court supervision, mandatory drug testing, substance abuse treatment, and other social services as an alternative to adjudication or incarceration. In this way, drug courts are designed to break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction, and crime by changing the behavior of substance abusing offenders. Participation in these programs is voluntary. Eligible defendants must agree to the program’s requirements and successfully complete the program in exchange for avoiding incarceration, having their criminal charges reduced or dismissed, or having their sentences reduced. Drug courts encourage participants’ compliance and impose sanctions on those who fail to comply with the program’s requirements. Drug courts are widely considered an important strategy for reducing incarceration, providing drug treatment, and reducing drug use and recidivism (reoffending) among nonviolent offenders.

Although drug courts are mostly initiated and funded at the state and local level, Congress has supported the development, implementation, and expansion of drug courts through the federal Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program, originally authorized under Title V of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322). While the federal drug court grant program authorization of appropriations expired in FY2008, the program has continued to receive appropriations: $40 million for FY2009 (P.L. 111-8) and $45 million for FY2010 (P.L. 111-117). In the 111
th Congress, H.R. 6090 would amend the program and extend the authorization of appropriations for drug court grants from FY2011 through FY2017. Congress could consider reauthorizing the program in its current form or amending the program to reflect issues of concern.

Since the first drug court was established in 1989, drug court programs have been quickly adopted by communities and states across the country. As of July 2009, there were 2,361 drug courts in operation across the country. Although there are drug courts in many jurisdictions, it is unclear how many drug abusing offenders participate in these programs or how well they have fared after successfully completing a drug court program. Some estimates indicate that only a small number of potential participants are actually included in these drug treatment programs. Variations in how drug courts determine eligibility, provide substance abuse treatment, supervise participants, and enforce compliance reflect the adaptability of the drug court model, but also complicate program evaluations, comparisons, and cost-benefit analyses. Nevertheless, research suggests that drug courts reduce substance abuse and recidivism among participants compared to nonparticipants, and are a viable intervention for reducing drug demand among substance abusing offenders.

This report considers these and other issues related to state drug courts. The report includes an overview of state drug courts and the related federal grant program. The report then discusses some of the related issues that may be of interest to Congress if it considers reauthorizing the drug court grant program or other related legislation.

Date of Report: October 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R41448
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.