How Do Federal Drug Courts Work?

By Seth Ferranti 02/16/15

"The intent of drug court is to keep offenders out of prison."


Over the last five years, the drug war has been winding down and will be remembered in history as just another failed policy instituted by the U.S. Congress. As drug war hysteria has subsided, the idea of drug courts has increased in popularity. As an alternative to prison for individuals suffering from the disease of addiction, drug courts just make so much more sense in a progressive society. But the advent of this new tool to combat the scourge of drugs in the United States has led to a national debate. 

The consensus seems to be that drug courts are better than prison. This has not been tested, but it is a fact that it’s certainly a cheaper route. First used in the late 1980s as a mechanism against the crack plague, drug courts have spread rapidly through the country as the new policy of choice as authorities continue to fight drugs and addiction. Instead of locking up addicts and throwing away the key, society has finally gotten a clue and is trying to help these drug abusers succeed and assimilate back into society. This is preferable to the addict being ostracized and warehoused in prison for decades of their lives, forced to learn to survive by criminal ways and means inside the belly of the beast.

As we see a movement toward drug decriminalization in the United States, drug courts are becoming more widespread than ever. As a growing element of national drug policy, the courts have marked a definite shift in our prerogatives in how we fight the War on Drugs. But, as with any new policy or idea, the courts have come under media scrutiny. A spotlight has centered on them as we try to figure out the purpose of a drug court.

With all the hype in the media, no one has actually stopped and explained how the drug courts actually work. We see the term “drug court” bandied about in the news media all the time, but very few actually know what that term entails. To show what drug courts are all about, The Fix sat down with a drug treatment specialist who works with federal inmates on probation that suffer from drug addiction. Due to the nature of her work, she has asked that her real name be withheld so that she can continue to work in the field.

“Federal drug court is a relatively new phenomenon,” says Debra, a middle-aged drug counselor at an undisclosed treatment facility. “There are city drug courts, county, state and federal. Drug courts are designed for people who are at risk to go back to prison. It is facilitated by intense treatment. The intent of drug court is to keep offenders out of prison. And the design of the intense treatment is to hold people accountable for their own behavior.” Drug courts divert non-violent substance abusing offenders from prison and jail and into treatment, a kinder and gentler approach to the War on Drugs, but also a more cost-effective one. 

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that every dollar spent on treatment saves taxpayers seven dollars, because treatment is cheaper than incarceration. Locking up addicts doesn’t solve the problem, because at the end of the day, addicts commit crimes to support their habits. A lot of them aren’t hardcore criminals. For those addicted to drugs or alcohol, crime can be a necessity, and the purpose of a drug court is to give these offenders the tools they need to, if not overcome, then at least learn to live with their addictions. And learning to live with an addiction requires commitment, a strong support system, and accountability, as Debra mentioned.

“Any dealings I’ve had with drug courts are with people who have already been in trouble and are at risk for going back to prison due to their drug use,” she tells The Fix. “The whole intent is for people to become in control of their addiction, so consequently the biggest part is teaching people how to do this. If you are truly an addict, you are an addict for the rest of your life, so treatment is about keeping the addiction at bay.” This is something that people familiar with the 12-step program of NA and AA know to be true.

Drug courts help people recognize and address their drug abuse and addiction as a way of reducing criminal activity. If the participant doesn’t stay clean, or flunks out of the program, a jail sentence awaits them. This acts as a strong incentive to stay enrolled in the program and drug-free. Many offenders want to go through the drug court program because it’s a much more enviable option than going back to prison. “That’s the carrot,” Debra says. “Drug court works the same way, you get a lot of time off your probation if you complete it, but it takes up to a year to complete it.”

By using counseling, monitoring, shorter sanctions, and a team approach, drug courts move addicts from crime and addiction to recovery. By providing structure, support, encouragement, and coping skills, drug courts give addicts a chance. It’s about learning to live with the addiction, not denying or repressing it. The whole process is overseen by members of a drug team that include the offender's lawyer, a prosecutor, probation officers, drug-treatment specialists, counselors and a judge. The program relies on collaboration and cooperation. It’s proactive as opposed to reactive. 

“My team is made up of public defenders, two probation officers, two treatment providers, a prosecuting attorney and a judge,” Debra says. “The decisions are made as a team, but the judge can overrule anyone.” The four phases of federal drug court include Phase 1, which is 30 days long, but can be longer depending on whether the offender gets a job. “They have to put in five applications a day until they get a job, it’s very structured and we keep records of it all,” Debra says. “The offender has to be either actively seeking employment or going to school. Something productive, if not they can fail out of the program and go to prison.”

In Phase 2, the offender must go to drug court twice a month for three months. The team is kept apprised of the individual’s compliance and advancement within the program. Drug tests are mandatory and random. An offender is given a number to call in to everyday, and when informed that he is scheduled for a test, must report to a testing facility for a urine sample. NA and AA meetings are also mandatory and must be attended once a week. Keeping stable employment is mandatory, as well.

“The phases are designed for people that are noncompliant to regular supervision and who are struggling with chemical usage,” Debra says.“By maintaining abstinence and increasing structure and balance in their life, offenders can make it through all four phases in the year-long program.” Phases 3 and 4 last four months each. Once a month, the offender meets with the drug team at the scheduled court appearance. As the offender stays cleans and adheres to what the program dictates, he is awarded with more trust, but one slip up can get him violated and thrown in jail.

“I am directly involved with the federal drug courts,” Debra says.” I am their counselor. I am their primary facilitator. I report on them.” Debra is the person that has the most day-to-day contact with the offender and who also makes the reports that the drug team bases their decisions on. As an ex-addict and a trained professional, she can identify the signs of relapse easily and report to the drug court team accordingly. But, in drug court it’s not about punishment. She is there to help and knows what the offender is going through firsthand.

It is accepted knowledge in the treatment world that each time an addict fails in recovery, treatment gets more difficult. This is known in recovery jargon as "treatment resistance" and can lead the offender back into the netherworld of crime and drug abuse, a never-ending cycle of destruction that benefits no one.

Drug courts fight against this outcome and serve addicts that struggle with abuse and criminal behavior with treatment and guidance instead of incarceration. The community benefits greatly when addicts turn their lives around and stop committing the repetitive crimes motivated by substance abuse. So far, the program has cut recidivism rates, saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, emptied jail cells and addressed the number one problem our country faces—addiction.

Through the four phases of stabilization, treatment, transition and maintenance, an addict can learn to live with their disease and function as a normal and law abiding member of society. The National Association of Drug Court Officials has reported that there are almost 3,000 drug courts in this country now serving close to 150,000 clients. The numbers are growing daily as more money and energy is diverted to fighting the symptoms of drug usage, instead of locking up offenders and throwing away the key. A failed policy that has created a bloated prison industry that instead of curing addiction has fostered the culture of the diseases within its fences. Drug court has proven a cheaper and more effective alternative to prison. Drug addicts need treatment, not imprisonment.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about being sober after 21 years in prison and how to recover from recoveryHe also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.