Expand and Enhance Speciality Courts

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Introductory Paragraph

The drug court approach intends to reduce time in the criminal just system and provide treatment to individuals instead of punishment. As of 2023, there were more than 3,800 drug courts across the United States. The innovation of drug courts emerged in the late 1980s, when professionals recognized the importance of treating substance use and mental health in prevention of relapse and recidivism. Drug courts aim to reduce drug use relapse and criminal recidivism through a variety of services. These services include risk and needs assessment, judicial interaction, monitoring and supervision, graduated sanctions and incentives, treatment, and various rehabilitation services. [1]

Key Information

Drug courts are specialized courts targeting those charged with or convicted of a crime. Although drug courts vary in target populations and resources, programs are generally managed by a multidisciplinary team including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community corrections officers, social workers, and treatment service professionals. Support from those representing law enforcement, the family, and the community is encouraged through participation in hearings, programming, and events such as graduation. [2]

There are several types of treatment courts including:

DWI/DUI.Specialized and comprehensive court programs that provide individual treatment, supervision and accountability for repeat DWI offenders. These specialty courts follow the well-established drug court model and are based on the premise that impaired driving can be prevented if the underlying causes, such as substance use and mental health disorders, are identified and addressed. [3]

Mental Health Treatment Courts for adults and juveniles work with people with mental illnesses who are involved in the justice system. These courts connect people to effective treatment and support after they undergo screening and assessments. [4]

Juvenile drug treatment courts are designed for youth with substance use disorders who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Juvenile mental health courts focus on treatment and rehabilitation, and help divert youth from detention facilities to common-based services. Juvenile mental health courts also address issues such as involving families and schools in treatment. [5]

Family Drug Treatment Courts also known as dependency drug courts or family drug courts, use a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to serve families who require substance use disorder treatment and who are involved with the child welfare system. [6]

Tribal. A Tribal Healing to Wellness Court, like a state drug court, integrates substance abuse treatment with the criminal justice system to provide substance-abusing offenders judicially supervised treatment and transitional services using sanctions and incentives, and drug testing in a non-punitive setting, and intensive supervision. [7]

Opioid Intervention Courts are an in-depth intervention for people at risk of overdose. They are designed to address the treatment needs for people with an opiate abuse history and to prevent them from using while their case proceeds through the criminal courts. [8]

Re-entry drug courts begin when a person enters a jail-based treatment program. The program involves regular judicial monitoring and support through recovery. Ultimately, it prepares individuals for reentry into the community. [9]

Participants who successfully complete the drug court program can have their underlying criminal offenses dismissed or expunged. If a participant fails to complete the program, their case will be processed as it normally would in the traditional criminal justice system. [10] Drug court programs often include:

  • Participation over a series of months or years to establish and maintain long-term recovery strategies
  • Frequent and random drug tests
  • Clinical treatment for substance use disorders
  • Individualized case management services, connecting participants to employment opportunities, community service, pro-social activities, and education
  • Mandatory appearances in court
  • Rewards for maintaining treatment plans and sanctions for failure to meet obligations
  • Support and encouragement from the drug court team

Additional information can be found at the SAFE Project wiki titled "Improving Recovery Support for People in the Criminal Justice System." [11]

Relevant Research

SAMHSA published a research brief titled "Adult Drug Courts and Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Dependence." [12]

BJA published a research report titled "Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts - The Key Components." [13]

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the US Department of Justice summarized early research on drug courts. In a 10-year longitudinal study on recidivism and cost analysis of drug court cohorts, NIJ researchers found that drug courts may lower recidivism rates and significantly lower costs.  [14]

The Urban Institute Justice Policy Center conducted a five-year longitudinal study for NIJ. It examined twenty-three drug courts and six comparison groups in eight states: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington. The study titled, "Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE)" went beyond simply measuring recidivism and examined multiple outcomes (crime, drug use, socioeconomic outcomes, family functioning, and mental health). It found that drug courts produce significant reductions in drug relapse and criminal behavior and that drug court participants experience select psychosocial benefits in other areas of their lives. [15]

Re-Entry Drug Court Research. This was a collaborative study performed by NPC Research, The Center for Court Innovation, and RTI International. It was based upon an analysis of eight reentry courts. Results were mixed and primarily associated with level of supervision, the consistency and intensity of substance abuse treatment, the presence of wraparound services for multiple needs, and the degree of use of praise from the judge. It also suggested that eligibility factors associated with risk levels of substance use disorder Moderate versus high) may have also been a factor in the results. [16]

Minnesota conducted a detailed process evaluation and outcome evaluation in all nine of its DWI court programs. It also performed a cost-benefit evaluation in seven of these programs. The results for Beltrami County are detailed in this report. [17]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

  • Adult Drug Treatment Court Grants. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized the US Department of Justice to make grants to establish treatment courts. These courts integrate evidence-based substance use disorder treatment, random drug testing, equitable sanctions and incentives, and recovery support services in judicially supervised court settings. They are designed to prevent overdoses, reduce recidivism, and incorporate cultural elements and approaches. [18]
  • The Veterans Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019 mandated continued funding for the types of projects that had been implemented by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the preceding seven years. It directed the Attorney General to establish and carry out the Veterans Treatment Court Grant Program, which supports efforts to plan, implement, and enhance the operations of veterans treatment courts (VTCs). These courts operate in judicially supervised court settings that have jurisdiction over veterans involved in the justice system who have substance use disorders, including a history of violence and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their military service. Funding can also support efforts at the state level to assess, collect data, evaluate, training and build or enhance local or tribal VTCs, or to increase the identification and access to services for those underserved. [19]

Available Tools and Resources

SAMHSA maintains a locator for Mental Health Treatment Courts. [20] It also published a YouTube titled, "Drug Treatment Court - Opioid Overdose Prevention Framework." [21]

The National Treatment Court Resources Center provides a wealth of useful information including:

  • A set of webpages with extensive information on each of nine specific court types. [22]
  • A set of webpages on best and evidence-based practice standards for all treatment court types, as set forth by subject matter experts, researchers, and policy makers. [23]
  • A peer-reviewed journal titled "Drug Court Review" [24]
  • A website on current grants that are available through federal agencies such as BJA and SAMHSA. [25]
  • A map of all operational treatment court programs by state and county

AllRise formerly known as National Association of Drug Court Professionals host the Treatment Court Institute which leads training, technical assistance, and research dissemination for more than 4,000 treatment court programs in the United States. [26] It also hosts Justice for Vets [27] AllRise has published "Family Treatment Court Best Practices" which provides shared elements required in quality practice. [28]

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Guidelines." [29]

The Center for Court Innovation has published two documents of particular interest: "Ten Essential Elements of Opioid Intervention Courts" [30] and "Re-entry Courts Looking Ahead: A Conversation about Strategies for Offender Reintegration." [31]

The National Institute of Justice published "Seven Program Design Features: Adult Drug Court Principles, Research, and Practice." [32] It also provides a website titled "Adult Drug Court Research to Practice Initiative" which indexes a variety of links to webinars and other materials produced by drug court experts at the National Center for State Courts and American University. These resources were designed to promote timely dissemination of research on addiction, substance abuse treatment, and drug court programming. [33]

The National Institute of Corrections has a report titled "Tribal Healing to Wellness Court - Policies & Procedures." [34]

Promising Practices

Nebraska The Nebraska Supreme Court, in response to legislation broadening the definitions of problem-solving courts, established the Nebraska Reentry Courts Best Practice Standards. [35]

New York. In 2016, the Unified Court System launched an opioid intervention court in Buffalo, the first of its kind in the country. The opioid court provides immediate intervention, treatment, and supervision for defendants who are at risk of an opioid overdose. [36]

Pennsylvania. Cumberland County's Opioid Intervention Court was the second opioid court in the US. It is a voluntary program that consists of 30 court appearances as well as daily attendance at either drug counseling or NA/AA type meetings. Unlike other specialty courts, this program is a pre-trial program and not tied to a particular plea. The program is intended to engage participants with treatment resources and provide accountability for persons in the early stages of recovery. [37]


  1. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/238527.pdf
  2.  https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/238527.pdf
  3. https://www.dwicourts.org/whatsatstake/
  4. https://www.samhsa.gov/gains-center/treatment-court-locators
  5. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/programs/juvenile-drug-treatment-court-guidelines
  6. https://ncsacw.acf.hhs.gov/topics/family-treatment-courts/
  7. https://nicic.gov/tribal-healing-wellness-courts-policies-and-procedures-guide
  8. https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/2019-07/report_the10essentialelements_07092019.pdf
  9. http://www.reentrycourtsolutions.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Reentrypdf1.pdf
  10. https://ndcrc.org/what-are-drug-courts/
  11. https://www.yoursafesolutions.us/wiki/Improve_Recovery_Support_for_People_in_the_Criminal_Justice_System
  12. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4852.pdf
  13. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/bja/188154.pdf
  14. https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/do-drug-courts-work-findings-drug-court-research
  15. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/237108.pdf
  16. https://ndcrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Reentry_Court_Multisite_Evaluation_2017.pdf
  17. https://npcresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/Beltrami-Co-DWI-Court-Process-Outcome-and-Cost-Evaluation-FINAL-FOR-OTS.pdf
  18. https://bja.ojp.gov/program/adult-drug-court-grant-program/overview
  19. https://bja.ojp.gov/program/veterans-treatment-court-grant-program/overview
  20. https://www.samhsa.gov/gains-center/treatment-court-locators
  21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__zaI4LULJU
  22. https://ndcrc.org/resources-by-court-type/
  23. https://ndcrc.org/best-practice-resources/
  24. https://ndcrc.org/drug-court-review/
  25. https://ndcrc.org/solicitations/
  26. https://www.ndci.org/resource/training/ta/
  27. https://justiceforvets.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-Ten-Key-Components-of-Veterans-Treatment-Courts.pdf
  28. https://www.nadcp.org/standards/family-treatment-court-best-practice-standards/
  29. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/programs/juvenile-drug-treatment-court-guidelines
  30. https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/2019-07/report_the10essentialelements_07092019.pdf
  31. https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/Reentry_Courts.pdf
  32. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/248701.pdf
  33. https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/adult-drug-court-research-practice-r2p-initiative
  34. https://nicic.gov/tribal-healing-wellness-courts-policies-and-procedures-guide
  35. https://ndcrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Nebraska_Re-Entry_Court_Best_Practice_Standards.pdf
  36. https://www.nycourts.gov/LegacyPDFS/courts/problem_solving/oc-OpioidReport-CCI.pdf
  37. https://www.ccpa.net/4698/Opioid-Intervention-Court