Drug Treatment Courts


Drug Treatment Courts

The Drug Treatment Court (DTC) model for drug-dependent offenders involves diverting drug-dependent offenders from prison and jail into treatment and rehabilitation, through a process directed by a judge.  By increasing direct supervision of offenders, coordinating public resources, and expediting case processing, DTCs can help promote the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the individual, and contribute to a reduction in recidivism among drug-dependent offenders. DTCs do this by addressing the causes of crime in addition, and aiming to break the cycle of criminal behavior, alcohol and drug dependence, and imprisonment.

DTCs were created as an alternative to incarceration, combining treatment with intensive judicial oversight of the treatment process. Judicial oversight typically involves ongoing status hearings before a DTC judge, individualized interaction between the judge and participant (drug-dependent offender), interim sanctions and incentives to motivate compliance, drug testing, community supervision, legal incentives for graduating, and, in some cases, incarceration for unsuccessful termination. The intended beneficiaries of the DTC model are drug-dependent defendants who would otherwise be handled in the regular criminal justice system and, in some cases, would face imprisonment for criminal offenses.

DTC programs can serve as an alternative to the regular criminal justice procedure in many ways, including but not limited to: i) conditional suspension of the proceeding, or ii) supervised release when the person is in custody or is already serving a sentence.  In both instances, a substance-dependent individual, who has committed a certain type of crime, agrees voluntarily to receive comprehensive rehabilitation treatment under strict judicial supervision. The judge supervises the offender’s progress in the treatment program with the assistance of the defense attorney, prosecutor, social workers (case officers), treatment providers, and probation officers. Typically, a participant will spend from twelve to eighteen months in treatment under the judge’s supervision, and must report to the court every week or so at the beginning of the treatment, and submit to random drug testing. Both those working in the treatment process and the participants themselves report their progress to the judge.  At the end of the term (graduation), the participant leaves the DTC and, when the proceeding was conditionally suspended, the case is usually dismissed without prejudice (or the equivalent thereof in the particular jurisdiction), and consequently, the person’s criminal record is expunged for this offense. When this model is used during the phase of sentence execution, if the person successfully completes the program, he or she is released.

The model has been adapted to meet different countries’ realities. The legal eligibility criteria, the drug cases being considered, the way screening and referral process are applied, and the target population, among other aspects, may vary greatly from country to country.   Panama, for instance, employs a combined inquisitive and accusatory criminal justice system. Mexico is transitioning to a full accusatory system while this model is being piloted. In Mexico, the model has spread to different states but in very different ways from one to another.  In Costa Rica, the model has been incorporated into a broader restorative justice program.  In the Dominican Republic, trial judges, as well as special judges for the Execution of Sentences, have become involved.  Some courts accept domestic violence cases, while others focus on property crimes.

If the goal of a DTC program is to lower recidivism rates, relapse into drug use, and/or prison overcrowding, then including low-risk offenders such as those accused of simple possession may not be helpful, and in some cases may even be harmful. The DTC model promoted by the OAS, and supported in a MADCE study as the most efficient,  stresses the importance of including offenders whose crime was motivated by addiction, but not drug possession alone. However, expansion of the model to higher risk profiles takes time, and needs to be balanced with the state’s capacities to respond to the requirements of these profiles.

Several studies show that the model, when properly implemented, can be effective at reducing the recidivism rate and the crime rate, which is generally measured by a decrease in arrests for new crimes and technical offenses.  Some surveys suggest that the drug relapse rate of participants in DTCs ranges from 8% to 26%, lower than the rate for other judicial response systems. Other studies indicate that the best drug treatment courts reduced the rate of reoffending by 45% compared with other methods. However, as with any new idea, the model has been rightfully subject to study, debate, and scrutiny. Other studies present different results with regard to the success of the model.   This is probably the most studied model among all of the alternatives presented, as there are multiple studies being carried out presenting different practices. Further research on high-risk, high-need profiles for DTCs has documented that in comparison with those courts admitting only possession cases, “Drug Courts yielded nearly twice the cost savings when they served addicted individuals charged with felony theft and property crimes.”

The bulk of the current evidence comes from the United States, Australia, and Canada. However, there is a large effort in many Member States, supported by the OAS, to implement monitoring and evaluation systems,  in order for countries to be able to generate their own evidence to assess the performance of their programs. 

updated on 11/5/2015 12:31:55 PM