Commentary: Drug Courts’ Positive Effects on Families and Society

Jails and prisons in America are overflowing with people who suffer from substance use disorders. In fact, more than three quarters of inmates have either been arrested for a drug- or alcohol-related crime, have been intoxicated at the time of their arrest, have a history of regular drug or alcohol use, or have previously received drug or alcohol treatment.

Despite what most people think, the association between drugs and criminal behavior is not solely due to people committing crimes to further their drug habit. Drug use is actually a factor in many crimes that have nothing to do with obtaining money for drugs. In fact, drug use is implicated in 50 percent of violent crimes, 50 percent of instances of domestic violence and 80 percent of child abuse and neglect cases. Historically, policies addressing substance abuse and crime have shifted back and forth between either using treatment or using criminal sanctions. But research indicates that a more balanced approach that incorporates both treatment and criminal justice supervision is more effective.

This is where drug courts come in. Drug courts are specialized courts that offer people arrested for drug-related crimes an opportunity to obtain community-based treatment coupled with close judicial supervision as a way of avoiding sentencing and potential incarceration. By successfully completing this voluntary program, individuals have the potential to avoid criminal penalties and even have the arrest erased from their permanent record. Drug courts represent a criminal justice approach that takes into account the need to ensure public safety through close supervision, and public health through the delivery of community-based treatment. They are among the most effective ways to address the problem of substance abuse and crime.

Drug courts improve people’s lives in a variety of ways. They have been shown to increase rates of employment, help people obtain stable living arrangements, improve mental and physical health, and enhance interpersonal relationships. The improvements to the individual, their community and society are almost too numerous to mention.

Perhaps one of the most important and far-reaching effects of a drug court, which is often overlooked, is the positive impact it has on families who have been negatively affected by their loved one’s addiction. These families often face poverty, strained or broken relationships and separation from spouses or parents. The positive healing and restorative effects of drug courts on the family are dramatic.

One need only talk to a drug court alumnus, go to a drug court graduation or attend an annual National Association of Drug Court Professionals conference to witness these effects. As a result of drug courts, mothers and fathers can regain custody of their children, provide for their families and become productive members of their community. The personal evolution that many drug court participants undergo is nothing short of astounding.

As we approach the end of National Drug Court Month, we should continue to recognize the important role that drug courts serve in helping individuals and families overcome the devastating effects of addiction.

David S. Festinger, PhD, is Director of Treatment Research Institute’s Section on Law & Ethics Dr. Festinger holds a PhD in clinical psychology, Masters Degrees in both counseling and clinical health psychology, and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Karen Leggett Dugosh, PhD, is a Research Scientist for Treatment Research Institute’s Section on Law & Ethics. Dr. Dugosh holds MS and PhD degrees in Experimental Psychology.

Treatment Research Institute is a non-profit research and development organization focused on improving substance abuse programs and policies. TRI researchers have conducted seminal research around the efficacy of drug courts and have developed tools that support effective management of substance abusing offenders.  

2 Responses to Commentary: Drug Courts’ Positive Effects on Families and Society

  1. Dave Finch | May 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks to the authors for this encouraging article. The late Professor Linda Bayer makes the point in her book that there is only about a 3 percent participation rate in the nation’s drug courts. Is there any information more current than hers which indicates a much larger number are being reached by the drug courts? If not, the drug courts are a valuable, but only tiny part of any solution. Dave Finch

  2. David Festinger | May 21, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    The drug court model has more supporting evidence for its effectiveness than perhaps all other treatments for substance abusing offenders combined. Nevertheless, many still question the utility of the model because it does not reach a larger proportion of eligible offenders. Although it is true that drug courts currently serve only a small percentage of eligible offenders, it is important to draw a distinction between the “effectiveness” of an intervention and its “impact.” When antibiotics were first developed they were shown to be highly effective at treating a wide spectrum of infections, but they did not initially have a broad impact because there were not enough to go around. Did this suggest the need to go back to the drawing board? Clearly not. The solution was to produce more of the medication, get more doctors and pharmacists to dispense it, and increase public awareness about its effectiveness. It has taken several years to conduct and accumulate the rich body of research supporting the effectiveness of drug courts. The focus has now shifted to expanding the impact of drug courts by increasing their number and size, extending the model to higher risk populations, and getting the word out about the utility of this highly effective intervention. David Festinger, Karen Dugosh

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