How Drug Courts Work

Do Drug Courts Work?
Judge Robert Russell, creator of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, shakes hands with veteran Justin Smith who has succeeded in his court. The Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court is a hybrid drug and mental health treatment court. Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Research shows that drug courts work, not only for the participant but for society at large. "There's a lot of research on drug courts," the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Deutsch says. "What we now know is that drug courts do work. [They] not only reduce crime, but recidivism."

Most people in prison have substance abuse problems. In fact, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, while nearly 50 percent of the nation's prison population is clinically addicted. Once they get out of jail the numbers are even more mind-blowing — 60 to 80 percent of drug abusers commit new crimes. The numbers also suggest that treatment by itself does not work. Unless a judge holds them accountable by holding the "hammer" of jail over their heads as Markus puts it, 60 to 80 percent of inmates who seek drug treatment drop out of the program early [source: National Association of Drug Court Professionals].

Drug courts reverse all these numbers, providing clients a mélange of treatment and other services to help them stay clean. The courts also hold offenders accountable for their actions. Consider these statistics compiled by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals:

  • Drug courts reduce crime as much as 35 percent compared to alternatives.
  • For 2,000 graduates from more than 90 drug courts, the average recidivism rate in the first year after leaving the program was only 16 percent, and 27 percent after the second year, which is substantially lower than the recidivism rates for those on conventional probation.
  • Parents in Family Drug Courts are more likely to go to treatment and complete it than if they did not participate in a drug court. As a result, their children spend less time in foster care and families are more likely to be reunited.

To give an indication of the success of drug courts, one study from the National Institute of Justice determined that the felony re-arrest rate of in Escambia County, Florida was lower by 18 percent, and 15 percent in Jackson County, Missouri in two years beginning in 1999. Both counties began their drug court in 1993, and only accepted first-time drug offenders, but now accept drug offenders and non-drug offenders who have substance abuse problems.

And a second study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, found on average, 52 percent of drug court participants in nine jurisdictions in California graduate, while nine other courts had graduation rates of more than 65 percent [source: Carey, et. al].

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals' Deutsch says the drug courts work exceedingly well for high-risk individuals, as well as defendants with a long criminal drug histories who have not done well in community-based treatment situations. "These are people who have lost everything ... they're really in rough shape," he says.

And drug courts save budget-strapped municipalities money. They reduce the prison population, saving the states money. Drug courts improve employment opportunities (resulting in increased tax revenue) and bind families together.

The average cost savings per client is roughly $6,000, Deutsch says. To put it more bluntly, he says, $27 in taxpayer money is saved due to positive impacts on the criminal justice system for every $1 of investment. In California, on average, the return was $3.50 for every $1 the taxpayers invested on the drug courts [source: Carey, et. al].

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for the decriminalization of drugs, says drug courts are not the answer to a health-centered approach for several reasons. First, the Drug Policy Alliance says that drug courts are costly and no more effective than voluntary treatment. And drug courts don't reduce criminal justice involvement or improve public safety, and participants are actually worse off for cooperating. "For these reasons, drug courts should be reserved only for people charged with more serious (non-drug) offenses but whose behavior was motivated by an underlying drug problem. Drug courts should be forbidden from focusing, as they do now, on people found using or possessing small amounts of drugs — who can be better served outside of the criminal justice system" [source: Drug Policy Alliance].

However, despite groups like Drug Policy Alliance advocating against drug courts, they don't seem to be going anywhere. In fact, their success has spawned other alternative courts across the country, including DUI courts and veterans courts, that operate in similar fashions [source: Frailing].

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