Virginia's Judicial System

About Drug Treatment Courts

Drug treatment courts are an alternative to traditional court adjudication of drug offenders. Traditional court processing is characterized by the following: (1) adversarial proceedings through which defendants are found guilty or innocent of criminal offenses charged against them; (2) court has limited supervision or knowledge of defendant's progress after adjudication and disposition; (3) separate and unconnected entities (probation and parole offices, local treatment programs, etc.) attempt to reduce crime and treat substance abuse; (4) punishment is a primary tool for deterring further drug offenses; (5) treatment varies in availability, cost, length, intensity and quality; (6) supervision and drug testing may be intermittent and lacking intensity; and (7) drug relapse is treated as a new crime or a probation violation.

In comparison, drug courts handle drug cases by: (1) collaborative and cooperative multidisciplinary drug court team (including judge, commonwealth's attorney, probation officers and treatment professionals) who work together to reduce crime and increase defendant's sobriety; (2) treating drug addicts is seen as an effective tool for reducing the demand for drugs and restoring defendants to productive and lawful lives; (3) the court is active in monitoring the defendant's progress and applies immediate sanctions when necessary; (4) while treatment is individualized, the program is uniform in structure, quality, and intensity; (5) there is frequent drug testing and probation monitoring; and (6) while relapse and program non-compliance results in graduated and immediate sanctions, beginning stage relapse is viewed as a part of the recovery process rather than a new offense.

Virginia, like other states, has handled drug offenders in the same way over and over again, perhaps expecting different results. Drug offenders are arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and released. The cycle begins again soon after release with relapse into further drug use. Some Virginia Judges were frustrated when loss of freedom or other forms of judicial punishment did little to correct addiction and criminal behavior. The number of drug offenders continued to climb during the past decade despite the best efforts of court and criminal justice officials. A 1997 study conducted by the Department of Criminal Justice Services Research Department indicated that 32% of all convicted felons are drug offenders. This is up from 22% in 1988. In the 1997 survey, half (50%) of all convicted felons had evidence of prior drug abuse (34% in 1988) and 31% had alcohol abuse in their background, with over a fourth (27%) admitting heavy use.

Between 1990 and 1997, drug arrests rose 66% in Virginia (17,606 to 29,302). National statistics mirrored Virginia's problems with drug case management. The National Center for State Courts reported that 31% of the 870,000 felony convictions in state trial courts in 1994 were for drug (possession or trafficking) offenses. A pilot drug court program started in Roanoke in 1995 was partially in response to the futility of "doing business as usual.” Drug Court programs represent a new way of doing business for state and local courts and criminal justice agencies in the United States. Drug courts provide a different type of court intervention in which non-violent substance abusers are held publicly accountable both for their offenses and their recovery. These programs combine intense substance abuse treatment and probation supervision with the court's authority to mandate responsibility and compliance. Drug Court programs seek to address the chronic behavioral patterns of drug offenders. As an alternate to traditional court processing, drug courts have proven successful in deterring addicts from future criminal acts. Recidivism rate of drug court graduates are approximately half or less than the re-arrest rates of non-drug court graduates.

According to the 2012 Cost-Benefit Analysis prepared by the National Center for State Courts, participants in a drug treatment program saved nearly $20,000 for total costs against the similar comparison group who were in a “business as usual” model. In that same year the Impact Study reported Virginia's recidivism rate was 26.6% for Drug Court with and 40.4% for a matched comparison group for a new conviction and 15.2% compared to 26.1% respectively for a new felony conviction. The impact study also reported Virginia's recidivism rate measured by rearrests, of 45%, indicates that Virginia drug courts as a whole out-perform many drug courts in other states at 52%. These findings suggest a robust and sustained impact of drug court on recidivism compared to the business-as-usual alternative.

Undergirding drug court programs is the philosophy that more effective handling of drug treatment for addicts will result in higher recovery rates and reduced criminal behavior. But why involve the courts in addiction recovery? First, the courts are already involved with addicts brought before them on drug and drug-related criminal charges. Therefore, they have a legitimate interest in dispositions that "fit the crime" and best protect public safety. Second, arrest often presents a "teachable moment" for the addict. This crisis often jars the addict's denial of their disease and prompts them to seek treatment. A disposition that takes advantage of this teachable moment by applying appropriate and immediate sanctions may prove more effective than sanctions applied long after the shock of arrest has dulled. Third, no other treatment program has the power of the court to issue immediate sanctions such as jail time or community service when an addict relapses or when he/she does not adhere to treatment rules. Ongoing judicial interaction and supervision increases the likelihood of participant sobriety. There is simply more inducement to take drug treatment seriously when the power of the court is involved.


This page last modified: November 24, 2014