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This article is written by Alisha Dargar, a student at United World School of Law, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.


The main objective of drug courts is to avoid the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. It also aims at curtailing drug-related unlawful activity. The judicial system in drug courts focuses on two main components- sobriety (to ensure that individuals are sober and not under the influence of drugs) and accountability. Specifically, the courts are established for diverting drug and alcohol addicts from prisons into coerced and organized treatment. Drug courts make sure that the offenders are engaged in treatment and successively the treatment providers keep the courts updated about the individuals’ progress in order to provide sanctions to the participants. If the participants are successful in completing the treatment program, the judge may impose a lesser penalty or mitigate or call off a sentence. The court sometimes lay off the original charges as well. Consumption of alcohol and other drugs and criminal activity related to it is reduced to a large extent while individuals are in the treatment program.

Drug courts help in creating an atmosphere with clear and certain rules and individuals are expected to comply with these rules. The most important function that drug courts take up is to present individuals with clear choices with regards to appearing in court, attending treatment sessions, taking occasional drug tests and thus encourage them to take control of their own recovery. The approach of drug courts towards an offender is systematic and controlled. Organizational and procedural characteristics of drug courts have a major influence on offender’s outcomes. Drug courts have attained extensive local support. They have been successful in providing concentrated and systematic treatment services for a long time to offenders with extensive records of drug abuse, previously failed treatments, and a history of health and social problems.

Once an offender is admitted into the drug court program, the team including the treatment providers and judicial officers focus mainly on the participant’s recovery and law-abiding behaviour. The law officers are expected to not go about according to the traditional courtroom procedure and rather concentrate on the offender’s growth during the course of treatment. Incorporating partnership between criminal justice and public health systems, systematic long-lasting treatment, a case management approach, accountability, and sturdy intervention of judiciary during treatment, drug courts have managed to incorporate a number of principles for effective substance abuse treatment as well as behavioural management. 

Evolution and Development

For a long time, drug abuse has highly affected the criminal system of the judiciary. Consumption of drugs and other drug-associated crimes are prevalent in almost every community of the world. Early efforts to eradicate the problem of drug consumption and possession only resulted in complicating the situation more. Drug possession and sale was penalized by various legislations however, it did not help in curbing the illegal use of drugs. The traditional judicial system proved to be ineffective in curtailing drug-associated problems. Several offenders were sent to treatment centres and some were sentenced to prison. But all these measures proved to be fruitless. 

The treatment providers and the judiciary were led by a common goal- preventing the illicit use of any addictive substance and curbing criminal acts linked to it. Both the systems had such resources that, if joined in partnership, could enhance each other’s capabilities and thereby increase the effectiveness. Thus, the concept of drug courts whereby offenders would be provided treatment into existence. The system of Drug Courts was started for the first time in the USA in the late 1980s. There are over 3,000 Drug Courts in the USA and similar bodies in over 25 other countries, however; India is an exception to it. Drug court is considered to be a mechanism for giving court-supervised treatment to offenders with drug problems for the long term. They play a major role in providing treatment with court’s intervention for drug-involved offenders. Drug courts have managed to establish an important position in America’s criminal court system. In recent times, drug courts have become the desired mechanism for connecting drug or alcohol-involved offenders to court-based treatment providers. 

In the last few decades, education relating to various branches of knowledge has been provided to individuals involved in operations of drug courts in order to develop in them a shared understanding of ethics, objectives and functioning processes of both the treatment and justice system. A systematic way of communication has been established between the treatment providers and courts wherein timely exchange of information about the progress of the participant in the treatment program is carried out. The judges are expected to reward the positive behaviour of the participant as they deem fit and also take stringent action against individuals’ noncompliant behaviour. In order to maintain professional integrity among the members of the drug courts and resolving conflicts between them, multidisciplinary committees have been established that ensure shared decision-making among members. 

In a drug court, the individual’s treatment program starts from the courtroom itself and continues till the time he is involved in the drug court. In a way, drug court provides a healing experience to individuals in a systematic manner. All individuals involved in the operations of drug courts form part of the therapeutic team. The team members engage themselves in frequent communication in order to provide accurate and timely information about the participant’s growth. Depending upon the growth and compliance and noncompliance by the participant, the court makes a further decisions. Participants are assessed at different intervals by both the court and the treatment providers to ensure adequate treatment services are provided to them. According to various evaluation reports of the drug courts, it was found out that the participants are predominantly male.

Drug courts do not always target individuals consuming hard drugs. Many drug court participants have been involved in physical and sexual abuse. They even have histories of suicidal ideation as well as suicide attempts. 

Laws governing Drug Courts

According Drug Treatment Court Act of Virginia, 2004, participation in the drug treatment program by an offender is voluntary. These treatment services are provided to offenders at minimal costs. Each participant is expected to contribute to the expenses of the drug abuse treatment that they receive while partaking in a drug treatment court. Every drug court is expected to form standards for the admissibility and participation of offenders that have been determined to be addicted to or reliant upon drugs. 

Drug Courts are most commonly prominent in the USA. Various judgments in the states have been passed by different courts pertaining to the laws governing drug courts. In People v. William Andrew Henry, C067258, Court of Appeals of California (July 17, 2012), the court held that although the law requires the participant to pay the fees, termination of drug court treatment cannot be sustained for non-payment without finding that defendant had ability to pay. In Walker v. Lamberti, Fla. Dist. App. 2010 the court held that a defendant who voluntarily agreed to participate in drug court cannot subsequently opt-out to avoid jail-based drug treatment programs. In People v. Tyler White, 2011 NY Slip OP 50731(U) (April 26, 2011), it was held that where the defendant met all the criteria for entry into drug court, the prosecution’s opposition could not bar entry.

Participation in the drug court program is discretionary and denial of entry is not a violation of equal protection because drug court does not create a right that involves a liberty interest was declared in Krauel v. Florida, Case No. 08-14093-CIV-MARTINEZ-BANDSTRA (United States District Court, S.D. Florida July 15, 2008). It was also held that in a non-drug court case, the defendant is permitted to use medical marijuana as a condition of probation, (People v. Stanton, NY: County Court 2018). In Youngberg v. Romeo, U.S. (1982) it was declared that involuntarily committed persons have a constitutional right to minimally adequate treatment and training to ensure safety and freedom from undue restraint.

Are Drug Courts effective? 

Initially, drug courts focused mostly on adults who were illicit substance users but in recent years drug courts have been targeting non-traditional populations as well, namely, juvenile illicit substance users and repeat driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenders. Thus, separate drug courts for adults. Juveniles and DWI offenders has been established in several states. Individuals’ increased interest in treatment-based correctional options that drug courts provide have led to the growth of drug courts. Drug courts have been successful in achieving their initial goals. They have gathered huge community support by associating themselves with local agencies to serve the drug-using offenders. They have been effective because of their long-term treatment provided to participants with long history of drug abuse. The most important achievement of drug courts is that they have been able to curtail drug use and related criminal activity while participants are involved in the drug court program. 

Many studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the drug courts. These studies show that drug courts at present provide a very uncertain and limited reduction in repetition of drug abuse and criminal activities by participants after they are released from the treatment program. The reason behind less degree of reduction is the most drug courts programs fail to target to focus on high-risk offenders. Several analyses have shown that drug court programs are more effective with younger individuals. Treatment providers that focus on high-risk offenders have also been successful in reducing recidivism. But the effectiveness of drug court participants in long term is uncertain. Numerous researches have even concluded that drug court participants have lower rates of recidivism (drug and non-drug offending) than similar offenders who did not participate in drug courts. It was observed that drug courts have managed to decrease recidivism for the period of time corresponding to the drug court treatment however, drug courts’ effects on recidivism beyond this period is vague and indefinite. Thus, the effectiveness of drug courts is limited to a certain period. 

Comparative Analysis with Other Countries 

United States– As of June 2015, the number of drug courts functioning in the U.S. is likely over 3,000. Drug courts have gained popularity in the U.S. among juveniles, defendants, adult offenders and even parents with children having problems of alcohol and drug dependency. Judicial intervention and interaction, timely screening and assessment of offender, and providing other rehabilitation services are some of the key characteristics of the drug courts in the U.S. 

England – Family and alcohol drug courts have been established in the country and have received tremendous success and support. In December 2005, the United Kingdom began a pilot scheme of dedicated drug courts. These drug courts are run and funded by a number of mental health trusts in the country. 

Canada- Numerous drug treatment courts have been established in Canada to address and serve the local community. These courts are mainly focused on adult, non-violent offenders who have been prosecuted under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of Canada. Offenders who are interested in voluntarily participating in the treatment program are evaluated to make sure that they meet the program participation criteria. Instead of being confined in a prison, participants who are successful in completing the treatment receive a non-custodial sentence. 

Australia- Perth, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria are some the places in Australia where drug courts have been established. To get admitted in the Drug Court, an individual needs to be facing criminal charges, should be undergoing drug related problems for a considerable amount of time, must have pled guilty at the initial stage and should have the willingness to participate and be available during the course of treatment while involved in the drug court. Participation and compliance of rules in the Drug Court program is administered by magistrate of the court with the help of the Department of Corrective Services of the country. 

New Zealand- As of 2018, there are two Alcohol or Other Drug Treatment courts in the country. Offenders that have drug and alcohol dependency problem are given an opportunity by these courts to deal with these issues before they are sentenced for their crimes. The sentences are not waived off and they still get their sentences however, the effort that participants put in the treatment program is taken into account while awarding sentence. Offenders that are at high-risk are mostly admitted into the drug court programs. 


The drug court model combines drug treatment with the legal and moral authority of the court in an effort to break the cycle of drug use and drug related crime. The vital elements of drug courts are: (1) collective, non-adversarial, result focused court processing, (2) prompt identification of suitable offenders for admission in treatment program; (3) drug abuse treatment incorporated into criminal justice case dispensation; (4) frequent drug/ urine testing; (5) program monitoring by judicial officers and (6) the use of sanctions/rewards theory. These mechanisms together form personalized judicial interventions that at the same time also provide drug treatment to drug abusing individuals and hold them responsible for their behavior. In order to successfully complete the treatment program, participants need fulfill some conditions like being sober for a certain period of time, conforming to all the rules of the program, and participants must exhibit some signs of life skills improvement like acquiring proper accommodation or work. 


If treatment for drug and alcohol abuse is to be effective, other factors are needed to be taken into consideration as well. Primary health and mental health care must be provided as well to the defendants. While dealing with problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, drug courts must also take certain measures to help individuals with mental illness or other health and medical problems as well. Many sections of society do not get proper treatment and rehab facilities, in such cases, drug courts must undertake certain steps to provide the leadership and availability of treatment services. An extensive study on the causes of drug and alcohol abuse must be undertaken by the drug courts so that the grassroots of such problems could be determined and accordingly actions must be taken to mitigate the harmful consequences.

Treatment services must be carefully selected in such a way so as to meet each participant’s needs. The number of individuals who are involved in unlawful drug abuse and other related activities are also increasing in India. A study was undertaken by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights on Substance Abuse by Children and it was concluded that 100 percent of the juveniles in conflict with the law were drug users or practically addicts. In absence of such courts in the country, many juveniles and even adult offenders are put behind bars instead of giving them supervised treatment. Thus, there is a need for the establishment of Drug Treatment courts in India as well to deal with individuals undergoing drug dependency problems and provide them appropriate treatment along with holding them accountable for their actions. 


Websites referred– 

Books referred-

  • National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Drug Court Standards Committee & United States Drug Courts Program Office- “Defining Drug Courts: The Key Components”, 1997. 

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