Drug courts

Local governments can invest in this strategy using State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

  • This strategy can help prevent violence. The U.S. Department of Treasury has indicated that strategies that help achieve this outcome are eligible for the use of Fiscal Recovery Funds.
  • Investments in this strategy are SLFRF-eligible as long as they are made in qualified census tracts or are designed to assist populations or communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Program overview

  • Offering treatment and reducing recidivism: Drug courts are specialized court docket programs that work with criminal defendants and offenders who have alcohol or other drug dependency disorders. They aim to help participants recover and reduce their likelihood of reoffending while diverting them from incarceration.

  • Diverting defendants: Defendants are referred to drug court either before pleading to a charge (i.e., courts using a pre-trial model) or after they have pled guilty and had their sentences deferred or suspended (i.e., courts using a post-adjudication model).

  • Providing services while requiring accountability: After referral, participants are screened to assess their risks and needs and then begin receiving treatment for their substance use disorder. During this process, participants are subject to monitoring and supervision and are given sanctions and incentives to encourage compliance with their treatment plan.

  • Offering specialized treatment: The model is adaptable to different target populations, such as juvenile offenders, adults with opioid dependence, or members of families involved in the child welfare system. Typically, specialized drug courts create partnerships with service providers who can deliver treatment.

  • Taking a collaborative approach: Drug courts are managed by multidisciplinary teams, often consisting of judicial, corrections, treatment, and social services professionals. This approach encourages collaboration between stakeholders, like prosecutors and defense attorneys.

  • Saving resources: By reducing the number of low-level offenders being processed through courts, jails, and prisons, drug courts can reduce costs while producing better outcomes for participants.

Evidence and impacts


Ranked as having the highest level of evidence by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps; the second-highest level of evidence by the National Institute of Justice

Multiple studies with rigorous designs demonstrate that drug courts are a well-supported strategy for reducing recidivism and drug use.

  • A 2016 systematic review identified drug courts as a scientifically supported strategy for reducing recidivism and drug use.

  • A 2012 meta-analysis found that adolescents who graduated from drug court had lower average recidivism rates than those who did not complete the program.

  • A 2010 meta-analysis found that drug courts reduce recidivism rates by an average of 9 percent.

Best practices in implementation

  • Set clear eligibility criteria: Drug courts are most effective for offenders who have serious drug use disorders, are at high risk of reoffending, have significant legal exposure (e.g., may be imprisoned if they do not complete the program), and do not have co-occurring mental health issues. Programs should set eligibility criteria accordingly and identify alternative diversion programs for offenders who do not meet the criteria.

  • Create a fair process: Participants who perceive drug court as fair have higher rates of program compliance and lower rates of criminal behavior and drug use. Programs can increase participants’ sense of procedural justice by writing and disseminating requirements and policies in easily-understandable language, developing a clear and predictable set of sanctions and incentives, and asking participants for feedback on drug court processes.

  • Establish partnerships with a range of service providers: Drug courts should develop relationships with a range of community-based treatment providers to ensure that participants have access to the appropriate treatment modality. Evidence-based treatment modalities include medication-assisted treatment, inpatient rehabilitation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more.

  • Plan for those at-risk of non-completion: Certain groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, boys, and offenders with histories of emotional or behavioral problems are less likely to graduate from drug court. To improve outcomes for these groups, drug courts can take steps that maximize completion rates, like promptly admitting participants, providing job skill training, or offering longer treatment periods.

  • Support the transition out of the program: After completing a drug court program, participants may be at risk of relapsing if they do not continue necessary treatment. To address this concern, drug court case managers can work with participants to strengthen their support network, identify coping mechanisms, and create a plan to continue treatment after graduation.