Focus Accountability Courts on Higher-Risk Populations

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (often called “the Crime Bill”) established an initial stream of federal funding for courts focused on people with substance use disorders. That funding stimulated the growth of drug courts across the country, and today there are more than 3,000 specialized courts that, with a mix of state, local, and federal funding, provide supervision, services, and other support in cases that involve drugs, driving under the influence, mental illness, and military veterans. Collectively, these courts are known as treatment, problem-solving, or accountability courts. In keeping with the thrust of policy at the time, the Crime Bill prohibited the use of federal funds for cases involving violent offenders, and that ban remains in force. But in the decades since the law’s passage, research has indicated that the combination of judicial oversight, drug testing, treatment, and other key components can be effective with high-risk, high-need cases, including those involving violent conduct. In addition, many courts have become far more comprehensive and sophisticated in their practices than they were a quarter century ago, enhancing their ability to effectively manage people with more serious criminal involvement. While precise figures are not available, it is clear that a large share of many accountability-court caseloads consists of people who otherwise would have been on community supervision, rather than those who would have been sent to prison. The Task Force’s recommendations would limit such “net widening” and instead encourage a shift toward the prison-diversion population. This evidence-based policy adjustment would reduce public expenditures while improving outcomes for health, safety, and justice.


Congress should strengthen the public safety and rehabilitative impact of drug, mental health, veterans, and other problem-solving and accountability courts.

Implementation Steps

  1. The U.S. Department of Justice should prioritize for federal funding state, local, and tribal drug courts that serve populations who would be diverted from prison, including those facing revocation for violating the terms of their probation, parole, or other supervised release.
  2. Congress should remove the prohibition on participation by individuals who have committed violent offenses and permit states to determine eligibility based on their public safety needs and criminal codes.
  3. The judiciary should establish a veteran’s treatment court within each of the U.S. Magistrate Courts that exist on military installations and allow active duty service members to participate.

Annotated Citations

Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Benefit-Cost Results for Adult Criminal Justice, updated December 2019. “Since the 1990s, the Washington State legislature has directed [the Washington State Institute for Public Policy] WSIPP to identify ‘evidence-based’ policies. The goal is to provide Washington policymakers and budget writers with a list of well-researched public policies that can, with a high degree of certainty, lead to better statewide outcomes coupled with a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.” WSIPP calculates that drug courts result in a net benefit of $9,308 per participant, including reductions in crime victimization. Net benefits of mental health courts are estimated at $14,672 per participant.

Marlowe, Douglas B. “Targeting the Right Participants for Adult Drug Courts.” National Drug Court Institute, vol. 7, no. 1, February 2012. “A substantial body of research now indicates which drug-involved offenders are most in need of the full array of services embodied in the ‘10 Key Components’ of drug courts (NADCP, 1997). These are the offenders who are (1) substance dependent and (2) at risk of failing in less intensive rehabilitation programs. Drug courts that focus their efforts on these individuals—referred to as high-risk/high-need offenders—reduce crime approximately twice as much as those serving less serious offenders (Lowenkamp et al., 2005; Fielding et al., 2002) and return approximately 50 percent greater cost-benefits to their communities (Bhati et al., 2008).”

National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “Equity & Inclusion: Equivalent Access Assessment and Toolkit.” Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standard II. 2018. “One of the most common criteria for exclusion from treatment court is a history of violence. Violent behavior is often one of the items listed on assessments of risk for reoffending. Such behavior endangers public safety and is costly. Perceptions of risk of violent victimization influence the public and those who answer to them, namely elected officials. Understandably, minimizing the risk of violence is a goal of the justice system. Thus, listing a history of violence as an exclusionary criterion is understandable. However, the research on violence and its association with recidivism suggests that its treatment as an automatic exclusion should be reconsidered. ... Comparisons of treatment court participants with and without a prior history of violence demonstrated that the two groups have equivalent reductions in recidivism (Carey, Mackin, & Finigan, 2012). Treatment courts that include those with a history of violence can achieve significant cost savings for their community by reducing recidivism among individuals involved in violent crimes, which are more costly than nonviolent crimes. Comparing courts, rather than individuals, indicates that programs excepting violent offenders have lower reductions in recidivism than those programs that accept only nonviolent offenders (Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, & MacKenzie, 2012). Violent offenders may need a different array of treatment and supervision, which may affect a court’s effectiveness in treating those individuals (NADCP, 2013).”

Berman, Greg, and Julian Adler. “How ‘Accountability Courts’ Curbed Georgia’s Prison Growth.” The Crime Report, 30 Jan., 2018, Georgia has been a leader in implementing accountability courts, and the initiative has been highly successful. Because Georgia’s prison population was ballooning, and due to the accompanying costs of that growth, the state authorized a broad expansion of specialized accountability courts, including drug courts. These reforms led to appreciable reductions in the exponentially increasing growth rate of the prison population, and declines in recidivism and drug use. Importantly, studies have shown the impact of such courts is even greater for “users of more serious drugs.”

Knudsen, Kraig J., and Scott Wingenfeld. “A Specialized Treatment Court for Veterans with Trauma Exposure: Implications for the Field.” Community Mental Health Journal, vol. 52, February 2016, pp. 127-135. “This study examines the efficacy of providing a Veterans Treatment Court specialized docket to trauma-affected veterans. Eighty-six veterans enrolled in a jail diversion and trauma recovery Veterans Treatment Court program. Veteran participants were interviewed at baseline, 6- and 12-months to determine if the program led to improvements in jail recidivism, psychiatric symptoms, quality of life, and recovery. The results suggest that veterans involved in the Veterans Treatment Court programs experienced significant improvement in PTSD, depression, substance abuse, overall functioning, emotional wellbeing, relationships with others, recovery status, social connectedness, family functioning, and sleep.”