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What Is a Drug Court?

Those involved in the criminal justice system have tired of seeing the same offenders (and in some cases, their children) cycle through the system. A “drug court” is a lower cost, effective response that has the long-term effect of removing drug offenders from the system. There are drug courts all over Ohio in both the adult and juvenile system and over 2,000 across the nation.

Q:        How does a drug court work?
        A “drug court” is a specialized docket usually administered through a traditional court to manage cases involving certain types of drug-related crime. Those who are arrested for possession of drugs, and who otherwise meet the criteria, are screened for eligibility and enter the drug court program within a short time after arrest. If appropriate, they begin treatment within two weeks of arrest. While they live in the community, they must comply with intensive probation requirements. They meet frequently with case managers, must prove sobriety through urine testing, and must comply with all requirements set by the managers.

During the program, offenders complete an individualized case management plan and remain drug-free. They may obtain GEDs and/or employment, work with Children’s Services to be reunited with any children, perform volunteer work, attend AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings, and do whatever is necessary to re-enter society as a sober, responsible person. While it would be legal to do so, program participants are not permitted to drink alcohol.

One of the hallmarks of a drug court is that offenders must appear in court on a regular basis to answer for themselves and take responsibility for a lack of compliance. If they fail to comply with the program (for example, by missing a meeting or testing positive for drugs), a series of graduated sanctions begins. For example, for the first sanction, they may sit in court for one day. Two days of community service are required for the second sanction, three days of jail time are required for the third sanction, and so on. As long as the offender is willing to try, he or she will not be removed from the program. Only those who leave the program voluntarily are considered failures. Some have asked to be sentenced to a jail or prison term in lieu of the program because they feel it is too difficult and the required changes too great. 

Q:        What are the main reasons for using a drug court instead of simply sending users to jail?
        Jail and prison are costly punishments. Taxpayers spend upwards of $120 per day to incarcerate offenders. Punishing non-violent offenders in other ways helps to reduce taxpayers’ spending for prison beds, and ensures that there is space in existing prisons for violent offenders.

Because incarceration alone has been shown to have little effect on drug addicts, other forms of punishment may be more beneficial. Without drug treatment, more than 70 percent of drug addicts will commit new crimes. Addicts who complete a drug court program are much less likely to commit new crimes. In fact, in most drug courts, the recidivism rate for drug court graduates is less than 10 percent

Q:        Are there rewards for offenders who successfully complete a drug court program?
        Yes. Participants appear in court to receive commendations for sobriety or other achievements. Also, the amount of their fines may be reduced. At the end of the program, there is a formal graduation ceremony acknowledging their successful completion of the program, at which time their respective cases are dismissed.

        Isn’t a drug court expensive?
        A drug court is less expensive than traditional approaches in both the short and long term. There are immediate savings to the taxpayer in reduced police overtime for court appearances, lawyers’ fees for defendants who are unable to pay for their own attorneys, and in jail beds (which can be reserved for other offenders). In addition, prosecutors are able to devote more time to other cases, which frees the court dockets.

More importantly, long-term savings are realized through the rehabilitation of the offenders. Seventy-five percent of those who enter a drug court program graduate with sober lifestyles and are able to take care of themselves and their families. They are employed, paying taxes and participating in the community, and are caring for their children rather than neglecting them or leaving them to the care of the state. An offender who successfully completes a drug court program is not likely to be a repeat offender. Furthermore, the offender’s children also are much less likely to become offenders, thereby ending the cycle of crime for many people.

Over the last 20 years, state and federal studies of drug courts have consistently shown that drug courts are the most cost-effective way to reduce drug-related crime. For example, a California study revealed that recidivism there dropped from 41 percent to 17 percent for drug court graduates.


This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Hon. Elinore Marsh Stormer, a common pleas court judge and founder of a drug court in Akron.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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