What began as an experiment in Miami less than a decade ago is now emerging as one of the most significant reforms to the American criminal justice system in the last half century.
In city after city, the latest research shows that drug courts are significantly slowing the revolving door of justice by addressing the root causes of crime.
Unlike traditional criminal courts, drug courts operate under the idea that if a drug addict steals to support his or her habit, it makes sense to stop the thefts by first treating the addiction.
Rather than focusing on punishing nonviolent drug abusers by throwing them in prison, drug courts seek to solve the underlying problems that lead an individual toward criminal activities.
Yet the courts aren't without their detractors. Critics say speciality courts are expensive, and they divert money from other cases that are more pressing. Some, too, argue that the courts are too "soft" on criminals - placing more emphasis on treatment than punishment.
Still, their success in reducing repeat-offender rates has been impressive.
"If you can reduce the individual's demand for drugs then you are going to reduce the need for that individual to commit criminal acts to buy drugs," says Margaret Beaudry, research director at Drug Strategies, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
The first drug court was set up in Miami in 1989 as a way to reduce the number of drug abusers clogging local jails. It has since grown into a national phenomenon. Today there are 200 drug courts fully operational and another 100 planning to open, according to a recent report by Drug Strategies.
The specialized courts are located in 48 states and Washington, D.C. and have handled 40,000 arrested drug users. More than 24,000 have successfully completed a drug court program.
"We are seeing dramatic reductions in recidivism. They aren't committing crimes anymore. They are getting jobs, supporting their families, helping their kids," says Ms. Beaudry.
A growing record of success is converting skeptics. "I think it is fair to say that probably by the year 2000 we may see drug courts in a substantial portion of jurisdictions in the country," says Jeffrey Tauber, a former drug court judge in Oakland, Calif., and president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
A survey of the 50 oldest drug courts found that 70 percent of drug court participants had either overcome their addictions and been released from the court-sponsored programs or were still in treatment. By comparison, success rates at stand-alone drug treatment facilities approach 30 percent, experts say, with roughly 70 percent of patients dropping out.
What makes drug courts more successful than the stand-alone programs is the threat of going to prison if a drug user fails to complete the program.
Drug courts employ a carrot-and-stick approach. The offender is offered the opportunity of either going to traditional court and facing prison or participating in an intensive rehabilitation program aimed at eliminating his or her addiction, finding employment, and taking responsibility for his or her further progress.
What differentiates drug court from other courts is that the goal is not to decide guilt or innocence or to mete out punishment. The primary goal in drug court is to help an offender stop being an offender.
It means that the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, drug treatment professionals, police officers, and others are working as partners rather than in adversarial roles.
"What these programs do is they require a level of coordination and partnership that in a very significant way changes the dynamic [of the criminal justice system]," says Mr. Tauber.
Drug courts have received high marks from all quarters of the criminal justice establishment as well as from drug treatment specialists. By keeping nonviolent drug users out of prison, scarce cells are available for violent criminals who pose a greater societal danger.
Many experts also say that warehousing drug addicts in prisons and jails only postpones crime.
"The police know about revolving door justice," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington. "The notion that the police have some special skills that can cure people who are drug dependent is just not true. We can pick them up but we have to have a place to send them where they will have some form of treatment available to them.''
Not everyone who participates in drug court benefits from the opportunity. Success rates vary from court to court, based largely on the severity of the cases being handled in each court.
In Miami, the program only applies to drug users who are arrested for the first time. That is a population that is likely to include many men and women who will respond to treatment and stay out of trouble in the future, experts say. Other jurisdictions are using drug courts to target chronic addicts. Success rates in those cases are much lower.
"No one is claiming this is a magic bullet," says Beaudry. But every case in drug court marks a gain for society, she says.
It costs from $20,000 to $60,000 a year to hold a person in jail or prison. In contrast, one year in a drug court program costs from $1,800 to $4,000, experts say.