Drug Courts Offer An Effective Alternative For Reducing Drug Use And Crime

Drug abuse drives a significant share of the crime in this country: 1 in 5 people in prison are incarcerated for a drug offense, 20 – 25% of prisoners incarcerated for all types of offenses report being on drugs when they committed their offense, and 15 – 20% of prisoners say they committed their crime to get money for drugs.

When drug users commit crime, is the best response incarceration or treatment? The nation’s 1400 drug courts operate on the philosophy that for some offenders, closely supervised treatment for their underlying substance abuse problems is the most effective way to keep them from committing more crime. A major new study by my former colleagues at the Urban Institute, along with researchers at RTI International and the Center for Court Innovation, finds that drug court participant engage in less drug use and criminal activity than similar offenders who follow a traditional criminal justice path.

In jurisdictions with drug courts, offenders who meet certain criteria – less serious offenses, less extensive criminal histories, diagnosed substance abuse problems – are offered the option to participate in the drug court program instead of a traditional, more punitive process. Those who choose to participate receive drug treatment, counseling, close supervision, and frequent court hearings and drug testing in lieu of incarceration.

The new study tracked 1800 offenders – 2/3 of whom participated in drug courts and 1/3 who served as a comparison group – in 29 jurisdictions over two years. Key findings from interviews with participants 18 months into the study include:

  • Report using any drugs in the previous year: 56% of drug court participants vs. 76% of comparison group.
  • Report using serious drugs in the previous year: 41% of drug court participants vs. 58% of comparison group
  • Tested positive on a drug test administered by researchers: 29% of drug court participants vs. 46% of comparison group
  • Report committing a crime in the previous year: 40% of drug court participants vs. 53% of comparison group
  • Self-reported number of criminal acts in the previous year: 43 for drug court participants vs. 88 for comparison group

Most of these findings are based on study participants’ own reports of their behavior, which can be unreliable, so the researchers also analyzed official criminal justice records. They found that 52% of drug court participants were re-arrested over two years, compared with 62% of the comparison group (this finding, however, was not statistically significant).

Not all drug court systems are equally successful. One of the study’s key findings is that the engagement of drug court judges plays a significant role in participants’ success. Judges who interact with participants, show interest and enthusiasm, and make participants feel respected and fairly treated produce better outcomes. The study also found that drug courts work well for all types of offenders, but particularly those who are more frequent drug users or more serious criminals at the start of the program. Unfortunately, these types of offenders are often excluded from participating in drug court programs, when in reality they may see the most benefit.

Drug courts attempt to deal directly with a root problem – addiction – rather than just the symptoms of criminal and anti-social behavior it engenders. This study suggests drug court programs may have hit on the right approach.

The Multi-site Adult Drug Court Evaluation (Pre-Production)
Urban Institute, RTI International, Center for Court Innovation // Shelli B. Rossman, John Roman, Janine M. Zweig, Michael Rempel, Christine Lindquist // July 2011

Disclaimer: I used to work for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, though I have no connection with this particular study.

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