Drug Courts

4. What Is Known About Drug Courts?

Drug courts may “work” for many reasons, but perhaps the most fundamental of these is the fact that drug-abusing offenders, simply put, need drug treatment. Drug-abusing offenders tend to respond better to treatment than other dispositions (Marlowe, DeMatteo, & Festinger, 2003). However, these offenders tend to have difficulty remaining in treatment of their own accord, and even when they do, this treatment is often not available to them for durations long enough to yield impacting changes in behavior. What drug courts provide is a means of integrating treatment into the criminal justice process (Rossman & Rempel, 2007; Taxman & Bouffard, 2002) in a manner that stresses offender accountability through formalized responses to their behavior, and provides the continuous presence of representatives from a broad range of criminal justice agencies.

4.1. Effectiveness of Drug Courts

Though drug courts are a relatively recent innovation, a growing body of literature has been devoted to investigating their working components and overall impacts. Studies continue to find that drug courts and other alternative methods of sanctioning, which tend to be tailored more to the needs of the individual offenders, have positive outcomes both in regard to the offenders themselves, as well as to the public at large.

Marlowe (Marlowe et al., 2003) begins his investigation by considering the merits and shortcomings of the public health perspective and the public safety perspective for dealing with offenders and suggests that a better way of looking at the problem is by integrating both of these positions.

The public health perspective holds that clients are best served by focusing on treatment and having minimal involvement with the criminal justice system. In this view, drug abuse is a disease needing treatment, not punishment. This approach requires that clients attend sessions and participate for a minimum of 3 months for effective treatment, with 6 to 12 months of participation being ideal. However, about 70% of clients drop out of treatment programs within the first 3 months, and only 10% generally stay for an entire year.

On the other hand, the public safety perspective argues that offenders require constant supervision to prevent them from reoffending. This approach requires imprisonment or intermediate sanction programs such as probation and parole. A potential drawback of this approach is that imprisonment has to date generally failed in deterring future drug use. Many drug offenders return to drug use and criminal behavior after release. In-prison treatment tends to reduce recidivism by 10%, but without follow-up treatment, there is no significant difference in results for those who had in-prison treatment. Likewise, intermediate sanction programs typically yield a 10% decrease in recidivism, but 50% to 70% of offenders fail to meet the program requirements. These programs are also usually administered without treatment, with high emphasis on sanctions.

Integrated strategies, which are embodied through programs such as drug courts, work release, and therapeutic communities, are structured so that substance abuse treatment makes up the core of the program, while criminal justice agents ensure attendance and adherence to program parameters. These programs incorporate community treatment, opportunities for clients to avoid formal charges, close supervision, and certain consequences for noncompliance. Such integrated programs have consistently been found to be effective in reducing drug use and recidivism. Work release programs and therapeutic communities have shown a 30% to 50% reduction in rearrests for clients. In drug courts, an average of 60% of clients complete at least a year of the program, and about 50% successfully graduate. Although rearrest rates do not appear to be different for drug court clients at 12 months, there is a “delayed effect” at 36 months according to studies of an Arizona drug court (Deschenes, Turner, & Greenwood, 1995; Turner et al., 2002).

Turner et al. (2002) explored prior research conducted on the effectiveness of drug treatment courts over the past decade, beginning with a discussion of the experimental field evaluation of the Maricopa County (Arizona) First- Time Drug Offender (FTDO) Program. The program targeted first-time felony drug offenders with treatment needs. It was designed to last from 6 to 12 months and consisted of orientation sessions and monthly status reports in front of the drug treatment court judge. The FTDO Program was evaluated on a four-cell randomized track. Three tracks varied the intensity and frequency of drug abstinence testing (none, monthly, biweekly), and the last track was the drug user treatment court program. A total of 630 offenders sentenced between 1992 and 1993 were randomly assigned to either the drug user treatment court or one of the three testing conditions and tracked for a period of 12 months. During this time, data were collected on outcomes such as employment, drug use, and recidivism.

Findings from the FTDO Program study showed that 40% of those in the drug treatment court successfully completed the program within 12 months. In addition, 61% of those assigned to the drug treatment courts either completed the program or were still enrolled at 12 months. The study also found that 85% of drug treatment court respondents were more active in drug education programs and outpatient counseling. However, participants in both tracks (the treatment court and the testing conditions) tested positive for drug use at least once during the 12-month followup, and 30% of all offenders were arrested within the first 12 months of probation for a new offense. Despite being successful in providing drug-using offenders with access to treatment, drug treatment court programs had little impact on officially recorded recidivism.

The FTDO study left open questions regarding the longer term impact of drug courts (longer than 12 months). Turner et al. (2002) summarize a 36-month follow-up study, which tracked 80% of the original 630 drug user offenders from the FTDO program. The results from the follow-up reveal that drug treatment court participants were less likely to commit a drug-related violation as compared to their testing condition counterparts (64% versus 75.2%), and fewer were arrested in the 36-month period (33.1% versus 43.7%).

In another study that looked at the long-term impact of drug courts, Wolfe, Guydish, & Termondt (2002) studied the Southern San Mateo (California) County Drug Court during its first 3 years of operation (1995–1998). Primary results showed differences between individuals who participated in the drug court program versus those who did not. The researchers conducted a follow-up 2 years after their initial study in which there were similar findings: Arrest rates were lower for graduates of drug court treatment program than for the control group.

Listwan and colleagues (Listwan, Sundt, Holsinger, & Latessa, 2003), in their study of the Hamilton County Drug Court in Cincinnati, Ohio, found that drug court programming indeed has an impact on those involved. Participation in a drug court had an effect on recidivism for drug crimes, but did not have an effect on general rearrest rates. The more involvement someone had in the drug court, the more likely the person was to reduce his or her criminal behavior.

Preliminary findings from Rossman and Rempel (2007) also suggest that drug courts are a more effective means of processing drug-abusing offenders through the criminal justice system. Drug court participants fared better than comparison groups in all measures of drug use (less use) and criminal activity (less), while they logged more time in treatment; had more contact with case workers; and had overall better opinions of judges and the system, which is hypothesized to influence offender readiness and willingness to work toward treating their substance abuse problems. According to Brocato and Wagner (2008), offenders who enter treatment abuse programs with positive motivation to not only change their habits but to change their lifestyles are more successful than individuals who lack such motivation.

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