This study aims to discuss the use of “drug court” as an alternative sentencing program
for those arrested and charged with drug related crimes. Drug court is used as an alternative to
serving jail time and can last anywhere between one to three years. Throughout this study drug
court shortcomings will be discussed, as well as the positive aspects of utilizing drug court
instead of jail time for those addicted to drugs or alcohol.
OUTCOME EVALUATION: DRUG COURT
This study is aimed to focus on the criminal justice system and substance abusers in the
state of Florida, and the need for prison-diversion rehabilitation programs for substance abusers
that are being charged with non-violent crimes. Often times substance abusers are arrested and
jailed for non-violent crimes, crimes they are committing as a means to get money for drugs,
whether it is stealing, prostitution, or dealing drugs, these are all ways substance abusers support
their habit. In doing these high risk behaviors, many face legal trouble that they cannot afford,
and end up in and out of the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system, however, is not a way to rehabilitate drug users. Many
substance abusers deal with different mental health problems outside of their addiction, such as
PTSD, depression, and undiagnosed mood disorders. Imprisoning substance abusers can lead to
them not getting the mental health care they need, as well as retraumatizing these individuals,
which further perpetuates the cycle of addiction. When substance abusers do not receive
treatment, they continue their pattern of use and cycle in and out of prison. Chapter 397 Florida
Statute reads that “It is the intent of the Legislature to provide an alternative to criminal
imprisonment for substance abuse impaired adults and juvenile offenders by encouraging the
referral of such offenders to service providers not generally available within the juvenile justice
and correctional systems, instead of or in addition to criminal penalties.” While this statute is in
place, it is rare that substance abusers that are being arrested are offered a treatment alternative
prior to sentencing, and an even smaller amount are offered treatment post sentencing.
Utilizing an alternative sentencing program or prison diversion program for substance
abusers that commit non violent crimes would be beneficial for the overcrowding of jails, a
decrease in prison recidivism, helping create a more positive future for those struggling with
substance abuse, and creating a more positive community with lower crime rates.
Drug court started in New York City in 1974, and in 1989 they were adapted throughout
all fifty states. Drug courts are judicially supervised court dockets that provide a sentencing
alternative of treatment combined with supervision for people living with serious substance use,
according to the Department of Justice.
According to previous assessments, offenders who participate in drug court are less likely
to be rearrested than offenders who are processed in the traditional court systems. “The United
States Office of Justice Programs (2012) defines a drug court as a specialized, problem solving
court that is dedicated to solely addressing the needs of offenders with substance abuse
problems. Typically, the judge, correctional system staff, and treatment professionals collaborate
with one another on a given case. Eligible drug or alcohol addicted persons may be sent to a drug
court in lieu of traditional justice system case processing. Drug courts keep individuals in
treatment for a minimum of one year while supervising them closely.” (Haskins, 2019.)
Drug court completers have been reported to experience fewer rearrests, fewer
reconvictions, and/or longer periods of time between arrests (Aos, Miller, and Drake, 2006;
Barnoski and Aos, 2003; Belenko, 2005; Shaffer, Listwan, Latessa, and Lowenkamp, 2008). The
evidence supports the use of drug courts to reduce recidivism as well as to reduce the fiscal
impact on the criminal justice system.
The Social Problem
Chapter 397 Florida Statute reads that “It is the intent of the Legislature to provide an
alternative to criminal imprisonment for substance abuse impaired adults and juvenile offenders by encouraging the referral of such offenders to service providers not generally available within
the juvenile justice and correctional systems, instead of or in addition to criminal penalties.”
Within 25 miles of one single area code, 33444 (Delray Beach, FL), there are over 120
treatment centers for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. Results. (2020).
People struggling with substance use disorder are, more often than not, ending up in jai
instead of in treatment centers. Not only is criminalizing those with substance use disorders
wrong, but it also makes the substance users’ life more difficult when trying to reintegrate into
society, which can lead them back to the cycle of addiction and jail.
Recidivism in the legal system is something that is extremely common, however in recent
studies they have found that recidivism in jail is more common for people struggling with
substance use disorder. Legal charges and jail time create a cycle of arrest, release, repeat, which
is similar to the cycle of drug abuse and relapse. According to the report, entitled “Arrest,
Release, Repeat,” at least a quarter of the 4.9 million people arrested and booked in jail each year
are repeat offenders, and at least 428,000 people will go to jail three or more times over the
course of a 12-month period. (Jones & Sawyer, 2019) Over half (52%) of people arrested
multiple times (2+) reported a substance use disorder in the past year and people with multiple
arrests (2+) were 3 times more likely to have a serious mental illness (25% vs. 9%). The report
aforementioned above looks into the gaps in the criminal justice system for people of color, those
struggling with substance abuse, and people with low income and lack of educational
background. The study shows that those who are repeatedly arrested and jailed are arrested for
lower-level offenses, have unmet medical and mental health needs. Continuing to arrest and
incarcerate these marginalized individuals does not enhance public safety or addresses their
underlying needs. These findings reiterate the need to redirect money that is being wasted on
repeatedly imprisoning people toward public services within the community.
A 2010 study (Online Only: Report Finds Most U.S. Inmates Suffer from Substance
Abuse or Addiction, 2010) found that of 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from
substance abuse and another 458,000 inmates either had histories of substance abuse, were under
the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes; committed their
offenses to get money to buy drugs; were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation.
Combined, the two groups make up 85 percent of the U.S. prison population.
In the state of Florida alone, there is a 16.4 percent increase in SUD related deaths in
2020 (Products – Vital Statistics Rapid Release – Provisional Drug Overdose Data, 2020).
According to research, recently incarcerated people are over 40 times more likely to die from an
opioid overdose. (Department of Corrections, 2018) Florida is the self proclaimed drug treatment
capital of the United States, however there is still a large gap in who is receiving treatment
services versus who is seen as less worthy. In the state of Florida, the 25-34-year-old age group
has the highest total number of opioid-caused deaths. 36.2% of Florida inmates are between the
ages of 25-34. 57.9% of people incarcerated in the state of Florida are jailed for burglary, theft or
drug related offenses. In 2018, 58,616 grams of illicit drugs were confiscated in Florida jails and
prisons. Of the inmates released in 2014, 24.5% returned to prison within three years.
(Department of Corrections, 2018)
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, personal security, employment, health and
resources are a part of a person’s Safety Needs (Grinnell, Gabor & Unrau, 2019, p. 194). Jail or
prison time creates a barrier to these basic human needs. The data discussed above in regards to
SUD and inmates presents a “normative need,” a social problem as defined by experts (Royse,
Thyer & Padgett, 2010, p. 57). But this need is also very much a “felt need,” which is a need
deemed necessary by people to address a deficit in their community, e.g., based on conversations
that I have had with people who are working on reintegrating into society after time spent
incarcerated for drug related offenses (Royse et al., 2010, p. 57).
The question in play is, does drug court work? Drug court, while sounding like a positive
way to help the alcoholic or addict, is not always the most effective way to help a substance user
and can create added stress and more obstacles for marginalized communities. Drug court does
not take into account the cost of treatment, transportation, the inability to work due to demanding
drug court rules and regulations, or the fact that relapse is not a punishable act and should not be
treated as such when dealing with mental illness. Drug court can often make someone less
employable due to treatment restrictions, mandatory random urinalysis, and intensive drug court
group meetings. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, personal security, employment,
health and resources are a part of a person’s Safety Needs, which would pose the question, is
drug court impeding on the needs of those enrolled in the program. (Grinnell, Gabor & Unrau,
2019, p. 194) If drug court does not work, what would? Throughout this paper drug court as a
way to decrease recidivism among substance users will be evaluated.
There are many different stakeholders invested in finding solutions to the number of
people imprisoned for substance use disorder related crimes. First, there are policymakers
(Grinnell et al., 2019, p. 11). The most important policy makers regarding this issue within Palm
Beach County Florida would be Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, State Attorney Dave Aronberg, and
Public Defender Carey Haughwout, as these would be the people working with police officers,
emergency medical technicians, as these people would all be working in tandem with a Program Director to place those struggling with substance use disorder in a long term rehabilitation
center, in exchange for jail time.
The public must also believe that problem is important to them, and be willing to pressure
policymakers into prioritizing the crisis (Grinnell et al., 2019, p. 11). Unfortunately, substance
use disorder and crime are highly stigmatized throughout the nation. However the data collected
creates a picture of the issue as a whole. Working with local recovery advocates, such as
Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates, a nonprofit located in Jensen Beach, could be beneficial
in working with this data to create calls to actions for local elected officials.
Program funders are crucial, especially when it comes to finding the funds to send people
to treatment, that can often cost thousands of dollars a month. The Department of Justice is who
supports research on drug courts, as well as training and technical assistance for drug courts, and
grants for drug court development and enhancement. The primary federal grant program that
supports the DOJ is the Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program. The Bureau of Justice
Assistance and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration work with the
Department of Health and Human Services to distribute grant funds to state and local
governments as well as state and local courts.
There are many different for profit agencies as well as nonprofit agencies that provide
different modalities of substance use disorder treatment, however none act solely as a diversion
program for those looking to escape lengthy prison sentences. Speaking with and collecting
information from different drug treatment programs and their administrators would be crucial in
knowing where there is a need, where there is recidivism, why these problems may be occuring
and which programs are less and most effective in long term sobriety.
One of the most important stakeholders for this assessment, are the clients. In this needs
assessment, clients are made up of 1) those struggling with substance abuse that have been
arrested, done jail time, and released back into society, 2) those who have received treatment as
an alternative to jail, 3) people struggling with substance use disorder. Those who have been
unable to access services and have experienced or are currently still struggling with SUD can
contribute to the assessment by expressing their needs to the officials and public. Stakeholder
groups would not understand why new funding is needed and why a program like this is
important without these people. Drug court uses its own screening tool to use after someone is
arrested with substance use related charges, and then gives the person the option of entering drug
court or declining and going with traditional charges and consequences. Once someone enters
drug court, they have a three part process, medical detox and treatment, ongoing care, housing, if
during any of these phases someone fails a drug test, they can be terminated and charges will be
brought against them for the original crime and any new crimes.
Possible finding for stakeholders could be that clients are substance users that are
uninterested in drug treatment, client are not first time offenders and do not have the option of
drug court, client has an unstable home life or employment that will make drug court a more
difficult option, jail time is minimal while treatment is long term, or that clients have a high risk
of relapse and added stress of drug court causes them to be dismissed from program.
Possible findings for stakeholders outside of the user could be bias within the criminal
justice system, overworked social workers that may be unable to give clients the attention they
need, or over regulated groups that do not feel safe for clients. A possibility for communities
could be that they do not believe one can be rehabilitated after committing crime, or those who
the offense was committed against may want consequences outside of drug court.
Describing the Program
Drug court was designed to fit a new comprehensive model to treat substance use
throughout the United States. Drug court programs are designed to divert some individuals away
from incarceration. Many drug courts offer a treatment and social service alternative for those
who may have faced criminal charges for their crime. In some drug courts, individuals that have
been arrested are diverted from local courts into special judge-involved programs. Drug court
often only takes on first time offenders, which can be seen as a pitfall in the system. Drug court
programs offer reentry assistance after an offender has served their sentence, however ignore that
one may have other costly bills to pay while taking part in drug court. While in drug court it is
recommended that the participant does not work. According to some research, these courts help
save on overall criminal justice costs, provide treatment and can help avoid rearrest. On the other
end, studies show that drug court participants relapse at a rate of 25% or greater before hitting a
two year graduation date.
Data from 2017 show that Florida’s drug courts admitted 6,195 participants and
graduated 3,577. Adult Drug Court is specially designed for the purposes of achieving a decrease
in recidivism and substance abuse among nonviolent offenders and to increase the offender’s
likelihood of success through early, continuous, and intense treatment, supervision, and drug
testing. In The Palm Beach County Family Drug Court Final Report, they break down the
amount of individuals receiving care and discuss how “success” is measured. While this report
outlines how drug court is working, it does not discuss ways in which it is not working outside of
noncompliance. (FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice et al., 2013) In the report
they discuss Failure to Appear (FTA) as the most frequent charge of someone within the
program, however it does not discuss why FTA may be happening, such as no access to transportation, inability to take off of work, or mental health crisis. While the Florida Drug
Court has been able to assist thousands of offenders, there is still a little less than 50% of
offenders not receiving services they need, which then takes them out of the data when looking
into re-offense or continued use.
Focusing the Evaluation
The issue of substance users ending up in jail instead of treatment is complex and often
stigmatized. Many questions come to mind when thinking about substance use disorder and crime.
Which demographic groups struggling with addiction are more likely to end up receiving jail
time instead of treatment? Is treatment too expensive? How can we decide who gets treatment
and who goes to jail? Asking the right questions will lead to better solutions. False assumptions
in considering the root of the problem lead to neglect solutions. We also want to better
understand the nature of the problem. How widespread is it? When did we start criminalizing
substance use disorder? Is the problem getting worse or is it starting to improve? We need for the
evaluation to be purpose driven and have goals for the results (Grinnell et al., 2019, p. 199).
Drug court takes some of these questions into consideration, while others are ignored.
When evaluating traditional drug courts, it is important to continue examining, who is being
given this option, who is not, is this fair, is this a viable option for people?
Gathering the Evidence
Interviews with groups and individuals can provide valuable insight and can provide
information that cannot be fully captured statistically (Grinnell et al., 2019, p. 204). Drug court
takes away the voice of its clients, giving them no choice but to comply with the rules and
regulations, or face jail time, this leaves clients with no option to provide insight until after
In looking for the appropriate way to collect data and understand the findings, qualitative
and qualitative methods would be most appropriate to find an answer. Literature on related topics
uses primarily qualitative data when looking at recidivism and substance use. As a way to
understand why drug courts may not be working as effectively as it could, qualitative data would
be best, as it would be a way to discuss the program with those who successfully and
unsuccessfully completed it. Using qualitative data would also open up discussion to see what
happens post the six month graduation date, which is where research ends at this time. This
would also be a way to improve the program for offenders. Possible findings include seeing
positive attributions of the program, as well as seeing the negative outcomes of the program.
Data is not arguable information, therefore it makes it more valuable when conducting research
on government ran program, such as drug court.
In order to collect the most accurate data, a summative data report in an end of year
report would work as a way to see 1) timeline of clients completing 2) client relapse and
retention rates 3) reports on recidivism for clients who graduated previous year and
re-offended/relapsed. This form of data could also work as a way to see cost versus a “what-if”
cost. Summative data looks at “what have you learned.” This form of data can come as an end of
year report, final performance reviews, and are a way to evaluate how well a curriculum (drug
court) worked. Summative data also gives drug court as an entity a way to see what needs to be
Through this data collection it can be learned how to better serve the population of
substance abusers. When collecting data it would be a priority to discuss the process with
graduated clients to see where the shortcomings are within the program.
It would be possible to learn that the drug court creates barriers to employment, this
would then be something that the drug court and its governing bodies would have to work
towards fixing and implementing new regulations. Could the answer be to allow those in drug
court that have secured employment, attend less groups and complete urinalysis testing on
specific days, would we then run into problems of people knowing when they can “get away
The best way to truly see the outcome of drug court versus necessary changes to the drug
court’s current regulations, would be a pre and post outcome evaluation. In doing this, one would
be able to best assess how drug court has been working, and how it may improve when
imperative changes, such as the need for employment, are taken into consideration and
implemented. The way this would work is to study drug court in its current state, implement
change, and study it again.
In conclusion, while drug court is a positive tool that can assist first time offenders with
co-occurring substance use disorders, it still needs to be assessed and continue to be monitored
for possible changes to continue working the way it was intended to in the 1970’s. Using
summative data and a pre-and-post outcome evaluation, would be beneficial in creating
necessary changes to the drug court system.
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