Drug Courts

What are drug courts?

  Source: NBC Nightly News

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 apply.

The court sets educational and work requirements while providing participants with the resources and intensive treatment they need in order to get and stay drug-free.  The court uses both sanctions and rewards to help modify the behavior of drug-involved participants and motivate them to achieve their goals and meet their obligations.

Washington State currently has 24 adult drug courts, 13 juvenile drug courts, and 18 family drug courts. Their contact and location information can be found on the Washington Courts website.

Are drug courts effective?

Gavel on top of bookShort answer: YES!

Alcohol and substance use disorders are a serious issue among offenders. Many of the individuals who come into contact with law enforcement and the justice system use illegal drugs. Drug charges made up the largest category of arrest charges in the U.S. in 2009, but high rates of drug use and treatment need have been reported among persons arrested for non-drug-related offenses as well.

Imprisonment almost always fails to address this issue. In a study of people released from Washingon State prisons between 1999 and 2009, injection drug use and substance use disorders were the number one risk factors for death after release, with 380 of the 699 all-cause deaths being caused by drug overdoses1.

Drug courts share the primary goals of reducing recidivism and substance abuse among participants. Each drug court is unique in operations, method, and length of treatment, and typically uses a combination of judicial oversight, supervision, drug testing, substance use disorder treatment, and sanctions and incentives in an attempt to modify the behavior of drug-involved defendants. Most drug courts use programs that run from 12-26 months and, thanks in part to that minimum one-year term, offenders are 6 times more likely to get clean2.  

Drug court programs cut down on re-offenses, the size of the jail population, and the number of addicts in the system and our communities. With strict and successful adherence to the assigned treatment program, offenders in drug courts often become eligible for a charge dismissal or reduction of sentence. A 2011 review of 154 adult and juvenile drug courts found substantial reductions in recidivism for adult participants (about a 12% reduction in both general and drug-related recidivism), though the reduction for juveniles was much smaller -- about a 6.5% drop3.

Not only do drug courts have a clear benefit for participants, they also save communities a lot of money. A 2017 benefit-cost analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found net benefit of $9,002 in savings for taxpayers and communities for every adult who goes through the drug court system4.


  1. Binswanger IA, et al. Clinical risk factors for death after release from prison in Washington State: A nested case control study. Addiction 2016;111(3):499-510. Free online.
  2. Marlow DB, et al. A sober assessment of drug courts. Federal Sentencing Reporter 2003; 16(1): 127-141. Free online.
  3. Mitchell O, et al. Assessing the effectiveness of drug courts no recidivism: A meta-analytic review of traditional and non-traditional drug courts. Journal of Criminal Justice 2012;40(1):60-71. Read abstract.
  4. Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). Drug Courts: Adult Criminal Justice. Benefit-cost estimates, May 2017; Literature review, August 2016. Free online.

Recommended resources

Washington Courts: Drug Courts & Other Therapeutic Courts. Find a directory of all the adult, juvenile, and family drug courts in the state (by county), as well as a list of local and national drug court resources.

National Institute of Justice: Drug Courts. Website includes information about drug court effectivenss, performance and evaluation measures, and more.

National Association of Drug Court Professionals is a training and advocacy organization for the treatment court model, which now includes over 3,000 programs found in every state, four territories, and over twenty countries.