The first Drug Court in Minnesota was in Hennepin County in 1996. Since then, the program has expanded to over 40 specialty courts in more than 30 counties across the state. The goals of Drug Courts are for offenders to complete the prescribed treatment program and to abstain from repeating the behavior in the future.
Drug Courts began in 1989 when researchers in Florida found that while 53% of individuals in state prison have substance abuse problems, only 15% receive treatment. Drug Courts use legal and social pressures, instead of only incarceration and probation, to create effective programs so participants can have positive futures as engaged community members.
According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, Drug Courts are more effective at stopping repeat offenses; producing healthier, law abiding citizens; improving public safety by reducing crime 8-26% in the community; and saving taxpayer dollars (the savings of a program graduate are approximately five times the cost of an individual not enrolled in the Drug Court system). While incarceration may be used throughout the treatment process to discourage undesirable behaviors, graduates generally spend less time in jail than those not enrolled in the program, saving $3,000-$13,000 per client.
Drug Courts emphasize that their success depends upon a variety of factors. First, multiple individuals need to be involved in the participant’s treatment program, including the judge, coordinator, treatment representative, prosecutor, defense attorney, and a law enforcement representative. They must all be present at status hearings and staff meetings for necessary support and consistency. Participants are also more successful if they follow the policy of staying clean for a minimum of 90 straight days during their treatment period. While it is required for individuals enrolled in the program to stay drug and alcohol free, many relapse during the program. Administrators use frequent drug tests to monitor the progress of each participant to reach this goal. Finally, Drug Courts must provide resources to graduates after their treatment, such as relapse prevention, gender-specific services, mental health treatment, parenting classes, family counseling, anger management, health and dental services, and residential care.
Minnesota’s Drug Court system reports that only 26% of participants face new charges after 2.5 years (compared to the 41% of the control group) and lower conviction rates (17% compared to 32%) upon completion of the program. Graduates are also more likely to later be employed, get further education, gain a valid driver’s license, and pay child support. After the program, graduates relapse at rates ranging from 40-60%, a significant decrease from the 90% relapse rate of individuals not enrolled in the program.
However, there are a few topics that could be addressed within the Drug Court system. Individuals with the most serious addictions or those using the hardest drugs tend to receive less effective treatment than those who only recently began using drugs. Therefore, new treatment plans could be created to ensure that all participants complete the program regardless of their history. There also tends to be a time lag between when a participant is assigned to the program and when they are admitted. While it is recommended that this period last no more than 30 days, it can go longer due to lack of available space in the treatment facilities, leading to an increased risk of relapse. This can happen even in Minnesota, where it is recommended that this transition happen immediately. More treatment centers may be needed to make the program as effective as possible.
Overall, Minnesotan Drug Courts have shown success in reducing recidivism and substance abuse at a lowered cost to the taxpayer. They provide a worthwhile alternative to traditional incarceration due to their emphasis on social engagement and responsibility. While there are a few questions that need solutions, Drug Courts are becoming an important facet of our criminal justice system.