American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 52, Issue 1 (2016)


Copyright American Judges Association. Used by permission.


On any given day, in courtrooms across the country, judges witness the unfortunate consequences of drug abuse reflected by some offenders who are in court “nodding out” from a “heroin high” while waiting for their cases to be called. A steady stream of people with untreated mental-health issues also enter courtrooms, often displaying oppositional attitudes, disruptive behavior, and cognitive disabilities. Judges are understandably frustrated with the justice system’s revolving door in which these offenders continuously rotate and with a system that cannot adequately address the numerous complex issues, insufficient life skills, and collateral problems that contribute to drug abuse or help users navigate to recovery. These individuals and problems are not the sole domain of the criminal-justice system and, unfortunately, are represented equally in civil and other non-criminal matters— just in another context.

The lessons we have learned and skills we have developed serving as drug-court judges are powerful, and they provide cogent strategies for dealing with traditional court litigants in the variety of criminal and civil matters that “full service” trial judges handle. This article describes drug-court-employed options and strategies used effectively over the last two decades to address drug use and associated mental-health conditions—approaches that promote healing and rehabilitation with substantially better results than those achieved by traditional punitive methods. This article also offers a roadmap for applying successful drug-court techniques, available to all judges in traditional court settings—techniques that will widen a judge’s repertoire of judicial skills.