The emergence of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, coupled with a continued widespread use of illegal drugs, has had a dramatic impact on the nation’s criminal justice system. In an effort to stem street drug dealingâ€”and the crime associated with illegal drug useâ€”arrests and prosecutions of drug offenders escalated dramatically, and penalties for possession and sale of illegal drugs were toughened. As a result of this nationwide “war on drugs,” unprecedented numbers of drug offenders were arrested, charged with felonies, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated. The war on drugs necessitated increased spending of public revenues, which has impacted the funding for other public services.
The impact of illegal drug use on public health, worker productivity, and education has often been overlooked. The criminal dockets for Chesterfield County reflect that approximately seventy percent of cases arise from the sale and/or possession of illegal drugs, the illegal possession of legal drugs, theft to support a drug habit, or a criminal act committed while under the influence of illegal or illegally obtained drugs.
The influx of drug offenders into the system severely strained courts, forcing some to the brink of collapse. Arguably, out of necessity, processing cases in an expeditious manner, rather than addressing the real cause of the problem, became the norm. In an effort to address growing case loads, courts employed delay reduction strategies, including specialized court dockets and expedited drug case processing. These strategies, however, did not address the complex issues underlying substance abuse, including mental health problems, and did little to rehabilitate drug offenders already in the system or to reduce recidivism among released offenders. The result was a revolving door that cycled drug offenders in and out of the justice system.
Frustration with the situation led communities to re-examine the relationship between criminal justice processing and substance abuse treatment. Communities discovered that treatment and justice practitioners shared central goalsâ€”stopping the illicit use and abuse of all addictive substances and curtailing the relation to criminal activities. Each system possessed unique capabilities and resources that complimented and enhanced the effectiveness of the other. Out of these discoveries, partnerships emerged and the concept of treatment-oriented drug courts was born.