Juvenile drug courts (JDCs) are intensive treatment programs established within and supervised by juvenile courts to provide specialized services for eligible drug-involved youths and their families. Cases are assigned to a juvenile drug court docket based on criteria set by local officials to carry out the goals of the drug court program (Cooper 2001).
Drug courts emerged in the middle 1980s in response to the rising level of drug-related crime of that period and the subsequent strain it was placing on the court system. In an effort to address growing caseloads, courts employed strategies to reduce delay, including specialized court dockets to expedite drug case processing. However, these strategies did not address the complex issues underlying substance abuse and did little to stem the tide of drug offenders flowing into the system, to habilitate drug offenders already in the system, or to reduce recidivism among released offenders. The result was a revolving door syndrome that cycled drug offenders into and out of the justice system (BJA 2003).
Frustration with this syndrome led to a philosophical shift in the field toward therapeutic jurisprudence. Therapeutic jurisprudence attempts to combine a “rights” perspective, which emphasizes justice, rights, and equality issues, with an “ethic of care” perspective, which emphasizes care, interdependence, and response to need (Rottman and Casey 1999). The fundamental principle underlying therapeutic jurisprudence is the use of a therapeutic option (an option that promotes health and does not conflict with other normative values of the legal system). The goal becomes to produce a positive therapeutic outcome. This new goal of the justice system coincided with the goals of treatment professionals and spawned a partnership in which courts began working closely with a wide range of stakeholders within a problem-solving framework. Drug courts are a prime example of courts that use the principles of therapeutic jurisprudence and were established from a partnership between treatment and justice practitioners (BJA 2003).
With the rapid rise and general acceptance of drug courts on the adult side, the application of drug court principles to juveniles was the next logical step. The first JDC began operations in Key West, Fla., in October 1993 (American University 2001). By June 2009 there were 2,038 drug courts operating in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including almost 500 JDCs (BJA 2009). However, the circumstances and needs of youths and their families differ from those of adult criminal offenders. Substance-abusing adolescents seldom are addicted to alcohol and other drugs in the traditional sense that adults experience addiction. Adolescents and adults misuse drugs for vastly different reasons. In addition, youths are still developing cognitive, emotional, and social skills necessary for a productive life and are greatly influenced by important relationships with family, friends/peers, school, and the community. It was important to shift the emphasis of JDC from a single participant to the entire family and expand the continuum of care to include more comprehensive services (BJA 2003). Thus, applying drug court principles to juvenile populations is not as simple as replicating the adult model. In fact, a JDC looks quite different from a drug court aimed at adults (BJA 2003).
Specifically, a juvenile drug court is “a court that focuses on juvenile delinquency matters and status offenses that involve substance-abusing juveniles” (Cooper and Bartlett 1998, 1). JDCs have five primary goals:
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