American Judges Association
Looking Backward, Looking Forward: How the Evolution of Specialty Courts Can Inform the Courts of Tomorrow
Date of this Version
Court Review, Volume 54, Issue 1 (2018)
The “war on drugs” in the 1980s led to more punitive drug related legislation and exponential increases in arrest and incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 580,900 drug violation arrests. In 1989, the number of drug-related arrests increased to more than 1.3 million.1 The substantial increase in arrests, many which were nonviolent, overburdened courts and resulted in increasingly overcrowded prisons. Laypersons and legal actors became frustrated with the traditional approach to case processing and the “revolving door” of repeat drug-related offenders.2 In response to burgeoning dockets and prisons and drug-related recidivism, Miami-Dade County, Florida opened the country’s first drug court in 1989.
THE DRUG COURT MODEL
Miami-Dade County’s Drug Court integrated substance use treatment and legal sanctions to divert defendants out of prison and expedite case processes. To this end, the MiamiDade County Drug Court targeted non-serious (e.g., possession), non-violent felony drug offenders and charged judges with long-term treatment adherence oversight.3, 4 Judges held frequent hearings with participants and closely monitored their rehabilitation progress. If participants successfully completed (graduated) the program (e.g., series of negative drug test results, no additional arrests), they could have their charges reduced or case dismissed. If participants failed to comply, they faced a variety of sanctions, including incarceration.5 Participation was voluntary such that arrestees could plead guilty and choose to participate in the program, or they could choose the standard legal proceedings (e.g., plea bargaining or trial).6
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