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Discrimination in Drug Courts

Written on April 27, 2023
Discrimination in Drug Courts

Unfortunately, discrimination is still an issue in drug court, both in Colorado and nationally.

What are Drug Courts?

Drug courts were established in the United States in the 1980s as an alternative to traditional court systems for individuals with substance use disorders. As described by the drug defense lawyers at Dolan + Zimmerman,  courts offer treatment and rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration for drug-related offenses. However, recent research suggests that drug courts may be discriminatory towards certain populations, particularly people of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.


Discrimination in Drug Courts in Colorado and Beyond

One of the ways that discrimination manifests in drug courts is through the screening and assessment process. In order to qualify for drug court, individuals must meet certain eligibility criteria, which typically include having a non-violent drug offense and a diagnosed substance use disorder. However, research has shown that individuals from marginalized communities are less likely to be referred to drug court in the first place. For example, one study found that African American defendants were 48% less likely to be referred to drug court than their white counterparts, even after controlling for other factors such as offense severity and criminal history.

Even when individuals from marginalized communities do make it into drug court, they may face additional barriers to success. One of the key components of drug court is regular drug testing, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

Additionally, drug court participants must attend frequent court hearings and meet regularly with their case managers, which can be challenging for individuals with inflexible work schedules or limited access to transportation. These barriers can make it difficult for low-income individuals and those with unstable housing situations to complete drug court successfully.

Another way that discrimination can arise in drug courts is through the implementation of certain policies and practices. For example, drug courts often use a system of incentives and sanctions to encourage compliance with the program. While this approach can be effective for some individuals, it may not work for everyone. In particular, research has shown that people from low-income backgrounds are more likely to be sanctioned for non-compliance, which can lead to increased financial burdens and even further involvement with the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, drug courts may be more likely to impose longer and more restrictive sentences on certain populations. For example, a study of drug court sentencing practices in New York City found that black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to receive longer sentences than white defendants with similar criminal histories. This suggests that implicit biases and stereotypes may be at play in drug court decision-making, even among well-intentioned judges and court personnel.



Overall, the issue of discrimination in drug courts is a complex and multifaceted one. While these courts were designed to offer an alternative to traditional court systems for individuals with substance use disorders, their effectiveness may be compromised by systemic biases and other barriers faced by marginalized communities.

In order to address these issues, drug courts must be held accountable for their policies and practices, and efforts must be made to ensure that all individuals have access to the same opportunities for treatment and rehabilitation, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Only then can drug courts truly serve as a fair and equitable alternative to traditional court systems.

If you are struggling with substance use disorder, call us to hear about our treatment options.