Drug courts are frequently touted as an alternative sentencing option for low-level drug offenders and were even promoted by U.S. presidential candidates in 2020. While national organizations tout that “Drug Courts Work,” there are many who question their efficacy. Favorable statistics and success stories depend on close fidelity to the prescribed models from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. With rapid adoption of drug courts nationwide, and little oversight of their fidelity to the drug court model, some judges may operate drug courts in ways that can harm, rather than help, an increasing number of participants. Improper drug court admissions and heavy use of jail sanctioning lead to worse outcomes for participants—and to suspicion toward drug courts among the criminal justice reform movement of which drug courts aim to be a part.

While the drug court model has evolved as a treatment model for offenders with high criminogenic risk and high treatment need, some judges either disregard or are unaware of this shift. Participants are supervised more closely and are often given higher treatment dosages than they require to address their substance use disorder. Low-level offenders may end up with accrued jail time through their drug court participation that exceeds the amount they would have received had they simply been sentenced to a jail term at the outset of their plea.

Increased oversight of drug courts, combined with required education for judges and court staff, will lead to a better understanding of the drug court model. By identifying the proper target population, focusing on treatment, and reducing or eliminating jail sanctions, drug courts will align with the national model, improve outcomes, and reduce both jail time and recidivism of their participants. This Article outlines the evolution of the drug court model and shows that lack of understanding of that evolution leads to harsher sentencing for low-level drug offenders.

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