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Drug Courts Can Reduce Substance Use and Crime, Five-Year Study Shows, But Effectiveness Hinges on the Judge

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Document date: July 18, 2011
Released online: July 19, 2011

Abstract

The most extensive study of drug courts—a five-year examination of 23 courts and six comparison jurisdictions in eight states—found that these court programs can significantly decrease drug use and criminal behavior, with positive outcomes ramping upward as participants sensed their judge treated them more fairly, showed greater respect and interest in them, and gave them more chances to talk during courtroom proceedings.


Contact: Simona Combi, (202) 261-5709, scombi@urban.org
Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 18, 2011—Proponents of the adage that one person can change the world need look no farther than the country's nearly 1,400 adult drug courts, which couple substance-abuse treatment with close judicial supervision in lieu of incarceration.

The most extensive study of drug courts—a five-year examination of 23 courts and six comparison jurisdictions in eight states—found that these court programs can significantly decrease drug use and criminal behavior, with positive outcomes ramping upward as participants sensed their judge treated them more fairly, showed greater respect and interest in them, and gave them more chances to talk during courtroom proceedings.

"Judges are central to the goals of reducing crime and substance use. Judges who spend time with participants, support them, and treat them with respect are the ones who get results," said the Urban Institute's Shelli Rossman, who led the research team from the Institute's Justice Policy Center, the Center for Court Innovation, and RTI International.

Drug court participants who had more status hearings with the judge and received more praise from the judge later reported committing fewer crimes and using drugs less often than those who had less contact and praise. Court programs whose judges exhibited the most respectfulness, fairness, enthusiasm, and knowledge of each individual's case prevented more crimes than other courts and prevented more days of drug use. And, when drug court participants reported more positive attitudes toward their judge, they cut drug use and crime even more.

While drug court costs are higher than business-as-usual case processing, they save money, the study determined, by significantly reducing the number of crimes, re-arrests, and days incarcerated. Drug courts save an average of $5,680 per participant, returning a net benefit of $2 for every $1 spent.

The Study

Drug courts emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as drug arrests and prosecutions exploded, overwhelming traditional courts' capacity to process cases expeditiously.

The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, was conducted in two phases. The first, in 2004, surveyed 380 drug courts, more than half of which required both an eligible charge and a clinical assessment for offenders to enroll. Few courts allowed participants with prior convictions for violent misdemeanor or felony offenses. More than a third of courts served only those who were diagnosed as addicted to or dependent on drugs; others also served regular users or those with any level of use.

In the study's second phase, researchers selected 23 drug courts in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington, and six comparison sites in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington. Between March 2005 and fall 2009, the team visited each location multiple times to document program characteristics and operations; interviewed a sample of 1,156 drug court participants and 625 comparison group members as many as three times (baseline interview and interviews 6 and 18 months later); administered a drug test at the 18-month mark; and obtained criminal histories, recidivism data, and budget information from state agencies and the FBI.

More Key Findings

Drug court participants who perceived the consequences of failing the program as more undesirable engaged in less substance use and crime. And those who received more judicial supervision and drug testing, or who attended more than 35 days of substance abuse treatment, reported fewer crimes and fewer days of drug use.

Drug court participants, compared to similar offenders processed through standard dockets, reported fewer days of drug use (2.1 vs. 4.8 days per month) and fewer crimes committed (52.5 vs. 110.1) when questioned about the past year at the 18-month interview.

Relative to similar offenders in the comparison group, those initially reporting more frequent drug use showed a larger reduction in drug use at the 18-month interview. Offenders with violent histories had a greater reduction in crime than others.

Although drug courts prevent a great deal of small-cost crime, overall savings are driven by a reduction in the most serious offending by relatively few individuals. Drug courts are especially likely to save money, therefore, if they enroll serious offenders.

The Takeaways: Implications for Policy and Practice

The researchers recommend that

  • judges hold frequent judicial status hearings, especially for high-risk participants;
  • administrators assign judges who are committed to the drug court model;
  • judges get training on best practices regarding judicial demeanor and effective communication with participants;
  • courts broaden participant eligibility, particularly to include those with mental health problems and histories of violent offenses;
  • programs include sufficient drug treatment; and
  • courts administer drug tests more than once a week during the program's initial phase.

The research team included Shelli Rossman, John Roman, Janine Zweig, Janeen Buck Willison, Mitchell Downey, and Jennifer Yahner from the Urban Institute; Michael Rempel, Dana Kralstein, Mia Green, and Kelli Henry from the Center for Court Innovation; and Christine Lindquist and Kristine Fahrney from RTI International.
The project produced five reports:

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Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice


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