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Effectiveness: Proven for reducing recidivism 4 Star Proven for reducing recidivism Cost: $$$
Use: Low
Time: Medium

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. The underlying goal is to change offender behavior by identifying and treating alcohol abuse problems and by holding offenders accountable for their actions. DWI courts usually target the enrollment, treatment, and supervision of drivers with prior DWI offenses or those with BACs of .15 g/dL or higher (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; NHTSA, 2016b). DWI courts have greater success in changing driver behavior compared to traditional court processes and sanctions, and can be particularly useful countermeasures for repeat offenders.

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

DWI courts follow the model established by over 3,000 drug courts around the Nation (U.S. DOJ, 2020; NDCI, 2020; Huddleston et al., 2008; NADCP, 2009; Goodwin et al., 2005, Strategy D3). See Brunson and Knighten (2005), Practice #1, for a comprehensive overview of DWI courts. The National Center for DWI Courts (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.

A DWI court reduces 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, 2016b).

A key feature of a DWI court is that the team meets regularly, giving all parties opportunity to discuss the status of a case. Judges can then immediately revise restrictions, if appropriate. DWI courts can be more efficient and effective than regular courts because judges and prosecutors closely supervise the offenders and are familiar with the complex DWI laws, evidentiary issues, sentencing options, and the offenders. A NHTSA report (2003a) describes the operation of a DWI court in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Use: As of June 2018 the National Drug Court Resource Center reported 278 designated DWI courts in 34 States (NDCRC, 2018). In addition, there were 420 hybrid DWI/drug courts in 30 States, which are drug courts that also take DWI offenders. States with the most designated DWI courts include Michigan (33), Texas (23), Georgia (21), Missouri (21), Wisconsin (17), Pennsylvania (16), and Colorado (15).

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

Effectiveness: Based on the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (2018), long-duration DWI court programs appear to be more effective due to the high intensity and frequency of contact involved, although effectiveness has also been demonstrated in short-term analyses. A 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 (Marlowe et al., 2009). 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 experimental evaluations of DWI courts are still needed.

Some program evaluations show that DWI courts can be 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 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, approximately only 1% of those convicted of DWI offenses were being referred to these courts (Sloan et al., 2016).

Evaluations have shown that close monitoring and individualized sanctions for DWI offenders reduce recidivism (Kubas et al., 2017; see also the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 4.4); similarly, greater interaction and involvement between courts and participants was found to lead to better outcomes for the participants (Sloan et al., 2013). When these are incorporated in comprehensive DWI court programs, their effects are likely even greater.

Costs: DWI court costs are difficult to estimate and compare with regular courts. Costs may be greater because more probation officers will be needed to reduce caseloads and to provide close monitoring, and because judges must allocate time to meet regularly with probationers and to deal with any probation violations. However, total time offenders spend in jail is reduced, thus saving the justice system time and money (Michigan Supreme Court & NPC Research, 2008). Moreover, DWI courts may reduce long-term system costs substantially if they decrease DWI recidivism as expected. These savings can spread across systems, such as health care facilities (in the form of reduced numbers of crashes and reduced alcohol abuse).

According to the meta-analysis conducted by Mitchell et al. (2012), the cost of DWI courts is lower than standard probation (see also National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, for a summary). 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 Maryland’s Anne Arundel County criminal justice system showed 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). These evaluations show 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 reduced incarceration (Harron & Kavanaugh, 2015). The majority of DWI court programs are funded mostly through State grants (69%) 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 sustainability plans for long-term DWI court programs (NHTSA, 2016b).

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 Information:

    • 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 positions were 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 LEAs in their States. Resources for prosecuting drug-impaired drivers are available at the National Traffic Law Center (visit The National District Attorneys Association provides TSRP training webinars and resources (visit NHTSA has also developed a manual to assist new TSRPs (Robertson et al., 2016), available at
    • Judicial Outreach Liaisons (JOLs): These are current or former judges experienced in adjudicating DWI cases. Many JOLs have presided over DWI or drug courts. They share information and provide education to judges and other court personnel about DWI cases. NHTSA has developed guidelines for creating State JOLs (Axel et al., 2019).