News Release

Drug Courts Endanger Rights, Block Access To Needed Treatment for Drug Users

Defense Lawyers Call for Major Overhaul

Substance Abuse Should Be Public Health, Not Criminal Justice, Concern  

Washington, DC­ (September 29, 2009) – Drug courts – first created 20 years ago as an emergency response to an epidemic of drug-related criminal cases that clogged courts and prisons – have in many places become an obstacle to making cost-efficient drug abuse therapy available to addicts and reducing criminal case loads, the nation’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys said today.

In too many places, access to treatment comes at the cost of a guilty plea for low-level drug offenses while hard cases are denied and offenders wind up in jail at great expense to taxpayers, a report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found. The report flowed out of a two-year task force study of problem-solving courts.

Well-intended prosecutors and judges, generally with little input from the defense bar, often limit entry to treatment to offenders most likely to solve their own problems while insisting that “harder cases” go to jail, at considerable taxpayer expense, the study found. Minorities, immigrants and those with few financial resources are often under-represented in drug court programs.

“Today’s drug courts have been operating for over 20 years yet have not stymied the rise in both drug abuse or exponentially increasing prison costs to taxpayers,” said Cynthia Orr, President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It is time for both an extensive review of these courts and for the average American to ask themselves; is our national drug policy working, and perhaps it is a public health concern rather than a criminal justice one?”

The 11,000 member association issued recommendations that would enable drug-courts, which were set up as ad hoc responses to local situations, each one different, to more successfully manage those with substance abuse problems and alleviate the stress on prisons and our taxpayers. “America’s Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform” argues that substance abuse should be seen and treated as a public health concern, outside the criminal justice arena.

The first drug court opened in Miami in 1989. More than 2,100 such courts exist today in nearly every state, yet incarceration levels for drug offenders and the cost to taxpayers has skyrocketed. In 2008 the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program said 1.7 million arrests were made in drug-related incidents, one arrest every 18 seconds.1 

Major findings of the report include:

Continue reading below

  • Treating substance abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one
  • Opening admission criteria to all those who need, want and request treatment
  • Enforcing greater transparency in admission practices and relying on expert assessments, not merely the judgment of prosecutors
  • Prohibiting the requirement of guilty pleas as the price of admission
  • Urging greater involvement of the defense bar to create programs that preserve the rights of the accused 
  • Considering the ethical obligations of defense lawyers to their client even if they choose court-directed treatment. 
  • Opening a serious national discussion on decriminalizing low-level drug use.

Read the full NACDL report, “America’s Problem-Solving Courts; Criminal Cost of Treatment,” here 


Featured Products


NACDL Communications Department

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.