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Problem Solving Courts

Tribunales para la resolución de problemas

Drug Court Model

A Drug Court is a specially designed court calendar or docket, the purpose of which is to achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse and to increase the participants’ likelihood of successful rehabilitation through early, continuous, and intense judicial oversight, treatment, mandatory periodic drug testing, and use of appropriate sanctions, incentives, and other community-based rehabilitation services. A Mental Health Court applies the drug court model to offender populations whose repeat criminal activity is driven by an underlying mental health issue rather than substance abuse.


Drug courts focus on those who are at High Risk of reoffending and in High Need of a significant treatment intervention for their drug addiction. Their intent is to reduce the likelihood of criminal re-offense by treating the underlying addiction that drives the repeat criminal behavior.

That’s why:

  • A drug court is a treatment program,
    • Drug court practitioners recognize that addiction is a disease, a chronic condition requiring the same kind of long-term care provided to a diabetic or someone with heart disease. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, among other evidence-based treatment modalities, is used over a 9-12 month period to educate the drug court participant about the nature of their disease, while giving them the tools to recognize and manage their “triggers,” just as a diabetic is taught how to manage diet and exercise.
  • Within a behavior modification program,
    • 60-80% of offenders who are simply referred to treatment will drop out of treatment prematurely. Science shows that it takes 3-6 months of abstinence from drugs and alcohol for the brain to begin healing from the ravages of addiction, and research indicates that 9-12 months of continuous treatment is necessary for any hope of long-term recovery and rehabilitation.
    • Accordingly, participants must completely change their drug-dependent behavior, and follow all treatment and program dictates, which requires significant behavior change on their part. They are subject to frequent and random drug testing to ensure abstinence, and monitored closely to ensure attendance at all treatment sessions, court hearings, community service assignments, and any other program assigned activities. They are provided clear rules and expectations, and held accountable for their actions, with positive reinforcement for compliant behavior and immediate and appropriate response for non-compliance.
  • Administered by a court of law
    • As the participant is only in the program due to criminal activity, the rule of law must be satisfied no matter what else happens with the participant in the program. Statutory minimums must be adhered to and all statutorily-mandated fines and fees must be paid. The judge is advised by the drug court team in determination of appropriate responses to participant behavior, but the judge is ultimately responsible for any court-stipulated action, be that an incentive or reward for the participant’s progress through the program, a change in treatment due to relapse, or a sanction such as curfew or incarceration for non-compliant behavior.​​

The figure below provides a visual image of how a drug court is a treatment program, within a behavior modification system, administered by a court of law. As such, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the different entities that make up a drug court program normally operate quite independently of each other, but through the collaborative and closely knit team-structure of a drug court program they prove far more effective at reducing recidivism of offenders whose repeat criminal activity is driven by addiction and/or mental health issues.

Court of Law Graphic

The key people involved in these three basic drug court components are identified below. Licensed counselors provide treatment. Multiple and varied people can be involved in the two arms of the behavior modification system, drug testing and sanctions and incentives: drug testing can be performed by probation/surveillance officers, treatment and even court staff; while sanctions and incentives are discussed and determined by the entire drug court team. Clearly the right-hand needs to know what the left-hand is doing for those two arms to work together in support of effective behavior modification. The Judge presides over all but administers the legal aspect of the drug court program in collaboration with prosecution and defense counsel.

Court of law Graphic

These slides speak more to how drug court programs actually operate, turning the normally adversarial nature of the court system (slide #1) into a collaborative team-effort.

How do they work graphic

Outside of the ongoing treatment sessions and probation/surveillance officer field activities, the major court components of the program are the Staffings and Hearings. In most programs, these are held every two weeks, with the Staffing immediately preceding and informing the Drug Court Hearing. The Hearing is the culmination of all other activities, as it is where the judge engages in a conversation with each participant about their compliance with the program.
 

Drug Court Staffing Graphic

Drug Court Hearing Graphic

Programs are organized into phases, giving the participant clear milestones for progress through the program. If the participant successfully completes all phases of the program, the judge will preside over their program “graduation,” which is a celebration with the entire team, family, and friends, to mark this major milestone in their recovery from substance abuse. Successful completion can lead to a reduction in charge or sentence for the original crime, whereas unsuccessful termination leads to sentencing on the criminal activity that led to the referral to the drug court program.