Earlier this month the first drug court in the USA, in Dade County Florida, marked its 20th birthday. Many newspapers observed the anniversary and published what are now fairly commonplace stories about successful participants—along with a new twist of possible drug court closures due to tough economic times. At this point one third of all counties in the USA have a drug court and it is an option for both juvenile and adult offenders. Despite recent economic trouble, drug courts have expanded beyond urban areas into rural counties (to find out what is available in your state see: http://www1.spa.american.edu/justice/documents/2416.pdf ).
Most drug courts accept defendants with a drug, or drug related offense, if they agree to plead guilty and agree to participate in drug treatment, stay drug and alcohol free, and comply with other requirements (often including getting and keeping a job or vocational training). Most courts limit what types of defendants they will take, such as not accepting those with prior serious felony convictions or current pending charges of violence. Drug courts are not adversarial, but instead are therapeutic meaning that their stated goal is to help the offender overcome their drug addiction, not merely punish for the offense.
This summer I am supervising law student externs. Their externships started a few weeks ago and I am hearing about their experiences and early impressions as many have their first exposure to our criminal justice system (the real one, not the TV version). Many of these students are seeing drug courts for the first time. As one of these students commented: “it seems like the judge really cares” about the defendants in the drug court. And, “it is not as cold as a typical court.”
For a view of how different the drug court process can look from the standard adversarial proceeding see how one judge in Arkansas handled a drug court participant who was not complying with the drug court requirements in this clip from youtube: