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Drug Courts: The Good and the Bad

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America’s drug courts promote a laudable mission – trying to keep drug users and addicts from incarceration. Yet, the design of drug court programs leads to unintended consequences like overdose deaths and poor treatment options.

Man in drug court before judgeSince the first drug court’s founding in 1989, drug courts have expanded to operate in all 50 states totaling more than 2,800 nationwide. They were originally intended to help addicted people arrested for possession or other low-level crimes get treatment, but the courts end up being too rigid for first-time offenders. Supporters of changing drug courts say they are better suited for people facing more serious charges, such as assault or domestic violence. Drug courts, in many cases, aren’t a good fit for someone who commits a low-level crime due to an addiction. These people respond best to addiction treatment outside of the highly regulated court system.[1]

A major criticism of drug courts is that participants must give up privacy rights, including confidential medical records and conversations with therapists. This sets up people in addiction treatment to fear any mistake, because it means they will be incarcerated. A Huffington Post editorial gives a personal example of the consequence of misguided drug court policies. Written by a mother, the account describes how her son, who suffered with addiction and mental illness, overdosed and died because he was afraid seeking treatment for his relapse would send him to jail.[2]

How? Because addicts in the program are penalized for relapse. People who find themselves in a medical emergency due to drinking or drug use choose to skip the hospital for needed treatment and instead ride it out and hope they get through it. More than one person has died as a result.

Additionally, medical records are no longer confidential for those who go into drug court. Anything they say to their doctor or therapist can and will be used against them in the court proceedings, so those who are worried about relapse or feeling tempted to use may be less likely to report it and get help. These are issues that cancel out the benefits of drug courts for many.

Research on Drug Courts

Even as counties across the United States talk about the successes of their drug courts, other groups point out significant weaknesses.

Reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Justice Policy Institute and the Legal Action Center show drug court policies ignore medical science.

Often someone who experiences a relapse ends up incarcerated and spends more time in jail than if he never participated with the drug court at all. Drug courts also commonly ignore the advice of physicians, who call for medications to treat opiate addictions, including treatment with methadone and buprenorphine. Many patients benefit from these medications, which help them avoid heroin and other opiates and lower their chance of overdose.[3]

A recent report from the Drug Policy Alliance recommends decriminalizing low-level drug possession charges for people with an addiction. Studies show drug courts haven’t met the goals of reducing the number of people incarcerated because eligibility requirements are too strict. Many people with low-level offenses don’t qualify for the courts because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Plus, the courts ignore the scientific evidence that addiction is a chronic disease that includes periods of relapse. Instead people who relapse as part of their addiction are incarcerated instead of receiving the additional treatment they need.[4]

The Benefits of Drug Court

Many people credit their sobriety and their lives to a drug court program. They appreciate the chance to get treatment through a program, especially since the alternative is going without treatment while incarcerated.These programs work for many people who use the incentive of staying out of jail as an important motivator to get and stay sober through treatment.

While the current drug court system produces results for some, it could help more people with updated policies. Courts should give people access to evidence-based addiction treatments and recognize that addiction and relapse respond to treatment not punishment.

Treatment is the First Step on the Road to Recovery

No matter why an addicted person enrolls in drug rehab, it is usually the first step in recovery. Learn more about our intensive and therapeutic treatment programs here at Michael’s House by contacting us today.

[1] Gregory, John. (2016). The Role of Drug Courts in Helping Addicts Recover. Kentucky Educational Television. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from

[2] Pawlowski, Elaine. (2013). Reevaluating Drug Courts: No Mother Should Have to Go Through What I Did. The Huffington Post. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from

[3] Abrahamson, Daniel N. (2015). Drug courts are not the answer. Justice Policy Institute. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from

[4] The Drug Policy Alliance. (2014). Moving Away from Drug Courts: Toward a Health- Centered Approach to Drug Use. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from