Drug Courts

What are drug courts?

Simply put, drug courts are a way to help people facing drug-related criminal offenses get help and stay out of prison at the same time.  Non-violent offenders are ordered into a program of treatment, counseling and testing designed to hold them accountable. If a participant fails the program, their “stay out of jail free card” (or reduced time) will be revoked and other penalties may well apply.


The court sets educational and work requirements while providing the offender with the resources and intensive treatment they need in order to get and stay drug-free.  The court uses a careful “carrot and stick” approach tailored to either sanction or reward offenders for their actions to achieve their obligations. 


The Bureau of Justice Assistance describes drug courts as: “A specially designed court calendar or docket, the purposes of which are to achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse among nonviolent substance abusing offenders and to increase the offender’s likelihood of successful habilitation through early, continuous, and intense judicially supervised treatment, mandatory periodic drug testing, community supervision, and use of appropriate sanctions and other rehabilitation services”.


Why drug courts?

Drug courts address the huge problem of alcohol and drug abuse among offenders.  Some studies show that as high as 60 percent of all people arrested test positive for illicit drugs.[i] Imprisonment fails to address this issue as not only are 50 percent of inmates clinically addicted, 60 to 80 percent of them go on to reoffend after their release.  In fact, a stunning 95 percent of addicted inmates return to drug abuse upon their release[ii].  


Drug courts provide a solution to this problem by providing comprehensive treatment programs.  Thanks in part to the minimum one-year term of drug courts, offenders are six times more likely to get clean[iii].  This significantly cuts down on re-offenses, the jail population, and the number of addicts in the system and in our communities. 


How does one enroll in drug court?

Each Washington drug court has its own unique criteria for participation. Typically, offenders arrested for felony drug possession and those arrested for a property crime that is addiction-driven may choose drug court over a jail sentence.


However, offenders facing a violent or sexual offense or having a prior conviction for those types of crimes and offenders facing charges for manufacturing or delivering drugs or having prior convictions for those types of crimes are not eligible for drug court participation.


One fundamental prerequisite is that drug court participation is voluntary. Participants sign a contract that addresses their specific needs and if they successfully graduate the court may dismiss the original charge, reduce or set aside a sentence, offer some lesser penalty, or offer a combination of these. If a participant drops out of the program or fails to complete their individual plan, they waive their right to a trial and serve a predetermined criminal sentence.


So, what are the advantages?


For society:

Studies have shown a saving of between $4,000 and $12,000 per participant in drug courts.[iv]  These savings result from several factors including reduced prison costs, less so-called “revolving-door” arrests and trials plus a reduction in victimization.   In fact, a 2003 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that drug courts typically reduce rates of recidivism by 13 percent when compared to normal criminal courts. This statistic held true for drug courts located both across the nation and locally in Washington. The report estimated that the sample drug courts used in the study cost $3,891 more per participant than regular criminal court. However, when the reduced recidivism was incorporated, the sample drug courts generated $1.74 in benefits for each dollar of costs. Thus, adult drug courts appear to be cost-effective additions to Washington’s criminal justice system. (Washington State's Drug Courts for Adult Defendants: Outcome Evaluation and Cost-Benefit Analysis, 3/2003).

“The savings come if they don’t return to the criminal system,” said Judge Richard Thorp of Snohomish County.


For the offender:

With strict and successful adherence to the assigned treatment program, offenders who participate in drug court often become eligible for a charge dismissal or reduction of sentence. Also, the lower rate of recidivism for offenders who go through drug court rather than the traditional justice system is a clear advantage for such offenders.


Number of drug courts in Washington State

Washington State currently has 23 adult drug courts, 13 juvenile drug courts, and 14 family drug courts. Their contact and location information can be found on the Washington Courts website

Current Director Information

Administrative Office of the Courts
1206 Quince St SE
P.O. Box 41170
Olympia, WA 98504-1170

Dick Carlson, Program Coordinator/Research Analyst
Phone: 360-705-5320
Fax: 360-956-5700


More info:

Washington State's Drug Courts for Adult Defendants: Outcome Evaluation and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Directory of Drug Courts and Other Therapeutic Courts in Washington State

Criminal Justice Treatment Account

National Association of Drug Court Professionals: What are Drug Courts?
NADCP: The Facts on Drugs and Crime in America

[i] National Institute of Justice. (1999). Annual report on drug use among adult and juvenile arrestees. Washington DC: U.S. Dept. of Justice.

[ii] Hanlon et al. (1998). The response of drug abuser parolees to a combination of treatment and intensive supervision .Prison Journal, 78, 31-44; Martin et al. (1999). Three-year outcomes of therapeutic community treatment for drug involved offenders in Delaware. Prison Journal, 79, 294-320; Nurco et al. (1991). Recent research on the relationship between illicit drug use and crime. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 9, 221-249.

[iii] Marlowe et al. (2003). A sober assessment of drug courts. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 16, 153-157.

[iv] Carey et al. (2006). California drug courts: Outcomes, costs and promising practices: An overview of

phase II in a statewide study. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, SARC Supplement 3, 345-356, The impact of a mature drug court over 10 years of operation: Recidivism and costs. Portland,OR: NPC Research, Inc.