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Based on the drug court model, DWI courts are specialized courts dedicated to changing the behavior of DWI offenders through intensive supervision and treatment. A dedicated DWI court provides a systematic and coordinated approach to prosecuting, sentencing, monitoring, and treating DWI offenders. Prosecutors and judges in DWI courts specialize in DWI cases. A DWI court’s underlying goal is to change offenders’ behavior by identifying and treating their alcohol misuse problems and by holding offenders accountable for their actions. DWI courts are usually targeted towards the enrollment, treatment, and supervision of drivers with prior DWI offenses or those with BACs of .15 g/dL or higher (Teutsch et al., 2018; NHTSA, 2016). DWI courts have greater success in changing driver behaviors compared to traditional court processes and sanctions and can be a particularly useful countermeasure for high-risk offenders.

Intensive supervision is a key component of DWI courts. Probation officers monitor offenders closely and report any probation infraction to the judge immediately for prompt action. Infractions include failure to appear at court, testing positive on an alcohol or drug test, and not participating in the court ordered treatment sessions (NHTSA, 2016). Restrictions and monitoring are gradually relaxed as offenders demonstrate responsible behavior. The frequency of court appearance is higher at the beginning of the DWI programs, usually one or more times a week, and then it varies as participants progress to the next phases. In addition, participants are required to submit random alcohol and drug tests several times once the program begins. Most programs also reward participants (e.g., verbal or small token acknowledgement, reduction in sanctions) as they complete a phase of the program, meet treatment requirements, maintain sobriety, and comply with appointments.

A DWI court can reduce recidivism because judge, prosecutor, probation staff, and treatment staff work together as a team to assure that alcohol treatment and other sentencing requirements are satisfied for offenders on an individual basis. Treatment programs typically involve relapse prevention, counseling, support groups, drug education, and mental health programs for participants with co-occurring disorders. Most programs (75%) rely on treatment providers operating separately from court (NHTSA, 2016).

See Brunson and Knighten (2005) and Goodwin et al. (2005) for comprehensive overviews of DWI courts. The National Center for DWI Courts (NCDC, 2011) summarized 10 guiding principles for States implementing DWI courts. The guide also outlines recommendations for assessing and establishing plans for treatment, evaluation, stakeholder collaboration, and sustainability of the program.


As of May 2020 the National Drug Court Resource Center (2021) reported 269 designated DWI courts in 31 States, a slight drop from the 278 courts in 34 States in 2018. In addition there were 186 hybrid DWI/drug courts in 15 States, which are drug courts that also take DWI offenders. States with the most designated DWI courts include Michigan (32), Missouri (23), Georgia (20), Wisconsin (19), Texas (18), Colorado (16) and Minnesota (15).

In collaboration with the National Center for DWI Courts, NHTSA (2016) conducted an online survey with DWI courts and DWI/drug courts to obtain specific information about how the courts were being operated. A total of 105 DWI and DWI/drug courts responded to the survey in its entirety. Of the programs that responded, 44% indicated they serve primarily rural areas, 33% serve primarily urban areas, and 22% serve primarily suburban areas. Respondents indicated a range in the number of DWI participants currently active in their programs from fewer than 10 to more than 200.


Marlowe et al.’s 2009 systematic review found that DWI courts appear to be effective at reducing recidivism, although the available studies had too many shortcomings to draw definitive conclusions. A meta-analysis of 28 studies suggests DWI courts reduce recidivism among DWI offenders by approximately 50% compared to traditional court programs (Mitchell et al., 2012). However, the authors note that more rigorous evaluations of DWI courts are still needed.

Some program evaluations show that DWI courts are successful. Low DWI recidivism rates have been found for graduates of DWI courts in Athens, Georgia; Maricopa County, Arizona; Los Angeles County, California; and elsewhere (Marlowe et al., 2009). One study in Michigan found that DWI court participants were 19 times less likely to be rearrested for DWI within 2 years than a comparison group of offenders who were in traditional probation (Michigan Supreme Court & NPC Research, 2008). Another study of three DWI courts in Georgia found that offenders who graduated from the court program had a 9% recidivism rate within the next 4 years, compared to a 24% recidivism rate for a comparison group of offenders processed in traditional courts (Fell, Tippetts, & Langston, 2011). A study of DWI and hybrid DWI/drug courts in North Carolina found that participants who graduated from the court program were less likely to be rearrested or convicted on DWI charges than others who did not participate in the court program. Hybrid courts were less effective than DWI courts when participant re-arrests were compared. The study reported that while either court program was generally effective, only 1% of those convicted of DWI offenses were being referred to these courts (Sloan et al., 2016).


According to the meta-analysis conducted by Mitchell et al. (2012), the cost of DWI courts is lower than standard probation. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Department of Justice in 2014 estimated a generalized Criminal Justice System cost component based on interviews with 20 drug courts (Downey & Roman, 2014). The cost estimate amounted to $4,869 for drug court participants, which was lower than the estimated cost of $5,863 for the “status quo” approach. An analysis of the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, criminal justice system reported that the per-person cost over the 2-year program for DUI court graduates was $3,143. This was an average savings of $5,873 compared to people with DUI offenses who choose not to enroll in the DUI court program (NPC Research, 2009). The results of these evaluations indicate that while DWI courts provide more intensive and expensive services than standard probation, they still cost less to administer due to the shortened time required for supervising participants and the reduced use of incarceration (Harron & Kavanaugh, 2015). Traditionally, the majority of DWI court programs are funded mostly through State grants and fees imposed on the client for the payment of ignition interlocks, treatments, and fines. Federal, municipal and nonprofit grant funding sources are less predominant. Overall, less than half of the DWI courts have a sustainability plan for a long-term DWI court program (NHTSA, 2016).

Time to implement:

DWI courts can be implemented 4 to 6 months after the participating organizations agree on the program structure if enough trained prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and treatment providers are available. Otherwise, planning and implementation may require a year or more.

Other considerations:

  • Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors: DWI cases can be highly complex and difficult to prosecute, yet they are often assigned to the least experienced prosecutors. In one survey, about half of prosecutors and judges said the training and education they received prior to assuming their position was inadequate for preparing them to prosecute and preside over DWI cases (Robertson & Simpson, 2002). Traffic safety resource prosecutors (TSRPs) are professionals with prosecutorial experience who specialize in the prosecution of traffic crimes, and DWI cases in particular. They provide training, education, and technical support to prosecutors and law enforcement agencies within their States. The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) provides resources for prosecuting drug-impaired drivers that are available at the National Traffic Law Center (NDAA, 2021b). The NDAA also provides TSRP training webinars and resources (NDAA, 2021a). NHTSA has also developed a manual to assist new TSRPs (Robertson et al., 2016).
  • Judicial Outreach Liaisons (JOLs): These are current or former judges experienced in adjudicating DWI cases. Many JOLs have presided over DWI or drug courts. JOLs function as peer-to-peer educators, writers, consultants and liaisons, to share the latest research with the judges of their region or State. NHTSA has developed guidelines for creating State JOLs (Axel et al., 2019).