Skip to content
Quick Start for:

A new approach to addiction and crime

Drug Courts on Trial

The "War on Drugs" is a topic of national debate that never seems to lose steam. Regardless of how people feel about how the war is fought or its effectiveness, however, no one disputes its effects on America's criminal justice system. Drug cases of every kind clog the nation's court dockets, jails, penitentiaries and probation and parole programs.

Over the last decade, however, an increasing number of jurisdictions have taken a fresh approach to curbing drug abuse and easing the logjam of drug-related criminal cases: the drug court.

The treatment gap
The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council (TCJPC) reports that the number of arrests in Texas for drug offenses--not counting arrests for alcohol-related crimes--rose by more than 60 percent between 1990 and 2000, and The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) reports that about 50 percent of the 444,348 people on probation in Texas in fiscal 2001 were arrested for a substance abuse- or alcohol-related offense.

To combat this trend, the state launched a variety of programs in the 1990s designed to help Texans in prison, on parole and on probation get off and stay off alcohol and drugs. Of the more than 222,000 people on probation for drug- or alcohol-related offenses in fiscal 2001, however, only about 37 percent received substance abuse treatment, education or special services.

According to CJAD, only one in 73 felons on probation in fiscal 2001 had access to a residential, community-based substance abuse treatment program. Drug courts, a relatively new concept in probation, aim to increase offenders' access to treatment.

A new way
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse defines drug courts as a "mechanism for providing long-term court-supervised treatment to offenders with drug problems." Typically, a drug-court caseworker or intake specialist identifies likely candidates for drug-court programs from police arrest reports. If offenders, defense lawyers and the prosecution agree that intensive, court-supervised, community-based treatment is a viable alternative to trial and possible imprisonment, the offender is diverted to drug court.

Offenders must agree to abide by the drug-court judge's orders, which typically require close supervision and monitoring as well as frequent drug tests and counseling. A drug court brings together the collaborative efforts of the courts, social service agencies and the community in an attempt to help offenders get off drugs.

According to a 2002 TCJPC report, drug courts are based on the philosophy that "a combination of judicial monitoring and supervised treatment can be more effective in reducing drug usage and crime than treatment or judicial sanctions operating separately."

In 1998, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that, "Drug use and criminal behavior are substantially reduced while clients are participating in drug courts and that criminal behavior is lower after program participation, especially for graduates of the program."

The center also said, "Drug courts generate cost savings, at least in the short term, from reduced jail and prison use, reduced criminality and lower criminal justice system costs. Drug courts have been quite successful in bridging the gap between the court and the treatment/public health systems and spurring greater cooperation among the various agencies and personnel within the criminal justice system, as well as between the criminal justice system and the community."

Drug courts in Texas
The National Drug Court Institute reports that since the early 1990s, nearly 700 drug courts have been created across the nation, and about 425 are in the planning stages. The first courts established in Texas were in Jefferson and Travis counties in 1993. Dallas, El Paso, Montgomery and Tarrant counties followed, and Bexar, Harris and Hidalgo counties are joining the ranks.

In 2001, in response to a recommendation from Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's e-Texas Commission, the Legislature enacted H.B. 1287, which requires all Texas counties with a population of more than 550,000 to create drug courts. While not required to do so by law, Fort Bend County also created a drug court in February 2002.

"Substance abuse is the number-one prevalent problem in community corrections today. It is the overriding issue we deal with," says Leighton Iles, director of the Fort Bend County Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

"We started our own drug court in February 2002 and are in the process of screening defendants at the pre-adjudication stage for entry into our program.

"It's an opportunity for offenders in our area to leave the criminal justice system without a permanent conviction on their record, which is a huge incentive for people to comply with the program's requirements," Iles says.

Starting small
The 2001 Legislature allocated $750,000 annually for drug courts, which rely mostly on a combination of local and federal dollars. The costs to operate the courts vary widely, from $150,748 in Tarrant County, which handled 55 defendants in fiscal 2001, to $832,330 in Travis County, which saw 300 defendants that year.

The combined capacity of Texas' drug courts still is relatively small. According to TCJPC, the total number of participants in the six court programs created between 1993 and fiscal 2000 was only 2,473.

Research on drug courts is still in its preliminary stages, but TCJPC is evaluating Texas' program and will report its findings to the 2003 Legislature. In a January 2002 review of the state's drug courts, though, TCJPC Executive Director Tony Fabelo reported that while comparative studies are limited, national evaluations of drug courts show "promising results in terms of lower re-arrest and incarceration rates for participants."

Requirements and results
Drug courts place a priority on identifying people who meet the courts' criteria--often, even before they are indicted--and could benefit from alcohol and drug treatment.

Some courts do not allow DWI offenders to participate; others do not accept participants who have committed violent offenses or who possess criminal histories that indicate the program is not a good fit.

People arrested for offenses other than drug crimes may be offered the chance to participate if they demonstrate a history of chemical dependency or substance abuse. The drug-court staff assesses the depth of the individual's problem to determine the best treatment.

Texas' new law specifies that in drug court cases, the prosecution and defense attorney must work together to ensure public safety while protecting participants' due-process rights.

To participate, a person must volunteer to comply with the court's requirements. According to TCJPC, some common requirements include:
* attendance at weekly drug court hearings presided over by a judge;
* participation in frequent treatment and/or counseling;
* drug testing; and
* meeting with case managers to review progress.

H.B. 1287 allows drug courts to collect program, testing and counseling fees from participants based on their ability to pay. The drug and alcohol treatment required by the court, which commonly lasts from 12 to 18 months, may also include parenting classes, employment services, referrals for medical or mental health services and life-skills training.

If a participant fails to comply with the program's requirements, the court may impose a graduated series of sanctions for violations. The court may simply issue a verbal reprimand or require the participant to spend a weekend or more in jail, or if the violation is serious, such as an arrest, the participant may be terminated from the program or prosecuted for his or her original offense. Participants who graduate from the program may be released from probation, have their criminal charges dropped or their criminal record expunged.

Pam Wagner


An experiment in hope
Travis County's drug court, formed in 1993 as one of Texas' first, is called the SHORT program (System of Healthy Options for Release and Transition). The voluntary program lasts from 12 to 18 months.

SHORT's manager, Diane Magliolo, is a 30-year veteran in state and local drug rehabilitation. "The drug court movement offers the best of all worlds, the best of best practices. It offers intensive supervision, treatment and education and the authority of the court with ongoing drug testing," Magliolo says.

"Before drug courts, everyone was trying to find a solution to the problem of drug abuse-related crime, but we didn't have a comprehensive and coordinated approach. Now we do," she adds.

"We wanted to affect crime in Travis County, so we are trying to target a higher-risk population that is most likely to commit other crimes in the community in the future. We want to help these people get a job, take care of their children, pay their taxes, be members of the community."

Sixty-five percent of the people in SHORT graduate, compared to an 18 percent completion rate typical for outpatient treatment for drug addiction. Magliolo surveyed the court's clients to assess their satisfaction with the program, and more than 90 percent said they were satisfied. "When we asked them what helped the most, they told us the drug testing and seeing the judge often and having a case manager and treatment. It's this combination that makes the program successful," Magliolo says.

"You also can see the program's effect on families of this program. When parents are in treatment, the children benefit because addiction is a family disease. You can see improvement from the time when they first signed up for the program."