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Drug Courts and Pre-Trial Diversion

Testimony before the U.S. House Domestic Policy Subcommittee

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Document date: July 22, 2010
Released online: August 05, 2010


Expanding drug courts to all 1.5 million drug-involved offenders would cost more than $13 billion annually, but would return more than $40 billion in benefits, John Roman told a House of Representatives subcommittee. The criminal justice system can maximize the use of drug courts without adding billions in new costs by calling on less expensive strategies, such as Hawaii's Project HOPE, to identify defendants who can be encouraged to desist from offending, allowing drug courts to focus on those who cannot.

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full oral testimony in PDF format.


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today about drug courts and pre-trial diversion. I am a senior researcher at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, where, for more than a decade, we have engaged in extensive research on the effects of drug courts and other pre-trial interventions on crime and public safety. However, the views expressed are my own and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its board, or its funders.

The U.S. criminal court system has two broad mechanisms to protect citizens from crime by drug-involved offenders. Offenders can be closely supervised and imprisoned. Or, public safety could be improved by employing more sophisticated interventions that both rehabilitate and deter. For two decades, decisions have been made as if this is a zero-sum game—a choice between protecting the public or helping offenders onto a better path. We have consistently chosen detection and punishment, but there is growing evidence that this choice has led to more spending and more crime than would have been the case via a more balanced approach.

The challenge is to identify the right mix of interventions. To address this, I will briefly discuss three issues today.

First, do those who enter drug court do better than if they were subject to more routine case processing? Despite dozens of studies, research has not yet definitively answered whether drug courts reduce crime and drug use. To answer this question, in 2004, the Urban Institute, RTI International, and the Center for Court Innovation received funding from the National Institute of Justice to conduct a rigorous, multisite evaluation of adult drug courts. In this study, we interviewed over 5,000 offenders, conducted more than 1,000 drug tests, and collected data on drug court clients in 23 drug courts in eight states and drug-involved offenders going through regular court processing in four of the eight states.

We found that drug court participants self-report significantly less criminal behavior than the comparison group. During the 18- month tracking period, for instance, the total number of criminal acts was reduced by 52 percent. The reductions in offending persisted throughout the observation period, even after most in the treatment group had left drug court.

We also found that significantly fewer drug-court participants self-reported drug use than in the comparison group. Finally, we found that drug courts are cost-effective. The average net benefit to society is about $4,000 per drug-court participant, regardless of how well that participant did in drug court.

(End of excerpt. The full oral testimony is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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