Marriage Made in Court John N Marr

"The establishment of drug courts, coupled with their judicial leadership, constitutes one of the most monumental changes in social justice in this country since World War II."

General Barry McCaffrey, Ret.,

Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy (1)


Since the development of specialized drug courts in 1989, the drug court movement in the United States has swept through the criminal justice system, revolutionizing the way many court systems process drug, domestic violence, driving under the influence (DUI)/driving while intoxicated (DWI), juvenile, re-entry, and mental health cases. The movement has grown from one experimental court in Miami, Florida, to more than 1000 specialty courts in operation and another 500 in some stage of planning. The federal government, through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, provided more than $45 million in direct funding for drug courts in the United States during 2003. The Office of Justice Programs initial funding proposal for drug courts during fiscal year 2004 was $68 million.

Why did they do this? Because drug courts work. Through the use of intensive therapy programs, court management of client participation, drug testing, and other measurable standards, drug courts provide an objective standard for success within a therapeutic system heretofore characterized by subjectivity and ambiguous outcome measures.

From: Forensic Science and Medicine: Drugs of Abuse: Body Fluid Testing Edited by R. C. Wong and H. Y. Tse © Humana Press Inc., Totowa, NJ

Although every drug court has its own unique personality, there are a few things that most have in common. All drug courts are based on a highly structured, nonadversarial team approach. Participation in drug court is limited to criminal offenders whose antisocial behavior can be significantly attributed to the use, abuse, or addiction to controlled substances.

Prior to the development of specialty drug courts in the late 1980s, the various parties in the criminal justice system played very specific adversarial roles in drug-related cases. Prosecutors and defense attorneys entered into a dramatic debate in front of an independent j udge, who then decided the fate of the defendant, who in most cases was not even allowed to address the court. If it was determined by court personnel that drug treatment was appropriate, the defendant was referred to an outside treatment agency and given a specified time within which to complete a prescribed course of treatment. At the end of the treatment episode, the defendant would return to court and some type of report from the agency would be presented. In most cases, this report would simply state whether the defendant had completed the prescribed course of treatment or not (Fig. 1).

In drug court, the scene is very different. All parties work together to determine client eligibility and appropriateness for treatment based on pre-established criteria. Eligible participants are then tested by a licensed treatment professional for appropriateness and matched with a treatment agency where their particular strengths can be augmented and their deficiencies strengthened. A multi-disciplinary treatment team manages every case individually, accepting input directly from all stakeholders. Whereas all key stakeholders participate in case management and processing, the lines of communication in the courtroom are directly between the defendant and the judge (Fig. 2). This direct interaction facilitates clients' responsibility for their successes and failures and establishes a process whereby the judge takes on a parens patre role that is recognized and accepted by the drug-court participants. A multi-disciplinary team coordinates the entire drug-court process from screening to aftercare and evaluation.

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