Last month, when President Trump’s commission on combating the opioid epidemic released its list of recommendations, one of the first items on the list was a proposal to establish drug courts in every federal judicial district in the U.S.
Since they were first introduced nearly 30 years ago, drug courts have proven to be an effective, and cost-effective, way to get offenders with substance abuse problems into treatment and lasting recovery, and reduce recidivism.
Still, half of all U.S. counties do not have a drug court, and the drug courts that exist only have the capacity to serve about 10 percent of the serious drug-abusing and addicted offenders estimated to be in need, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).
To carry out the presidential commission’s recommendations, more resources need to be provided, says Chris Deutsch, NADCP director of communications.
“One of biggest issues is treatment availability,” Deutsch told The Influence. “Many courts have a certain capacity and they can’t take on more participants than they are able to connect to treatment. In some of the small rural communities there are not a lot of treatment programs available. If treatment infrastructure can improve more and resources committed to helping people get access to treatment, that will increase the number of people using drug courts.”
One reason for optimism about more drug court funding is that their proven effectiveness has translated into strong, bipartisan support, Deutsch says. “Drug courts are a true bipartisan issue,” Deutsch says. “We’ve seen them in both red and blue states. But they are competing with other programs, so funding always is a big issue.
“A lot of states are looking to support drug courts because they’ve seen enough benefit. There is enough research that shows that, when implemented properly, these courts can reduce DUIs, recidivism and save money and resources. So they are continuing to grow.”
The effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opiate addicts has made that a major focus for the agencies that fund and oversee drug courts, Deutsch notes. “The big push right now throughout drug courts is improved access to MAT, and seeking ways to get folks who are deemed medically suitable connected to treatment. So, a lot of courts are doing everything they can to make sure folks have access.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than 3,100 drug courts across the United States, half of which are adult treatment drug courts.
Research demonstrates that nationwide, 70 percent of the approximately 120,000 seriously addicted individuals who voluntarily enter drug court with the assistance of their defense attorney complete it a year or more later, and 75 percent of them remain arrest-free, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. A drug court participant is over twice as likely to stay clean and remain arrest-free as a newly released state inmate. Research also concludes that drug courts reduce drug abuse and improve employment and family functioning.
Nationwide, for every $1 invested in drug court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone. When considering other cost offsets such as savings from reduced victimization and healthcare service utilization, studies have shown benefits range up to $27 for every $1 invested. Drug courts produce cost savings ranging from $3,000 to $13,000 per client.
These cost savings reflect reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization. In 2007, for every federal dollar invested in drug court, $9 was leveraged in state funding.
Looking ahead to the 2018 budget, “there is really strong support in Congress, so we’re certainly expecting to hold the line on funding,” Deutsch says. “We would love to see an increase.”