Drug Courts

4.5. Findings from Meta-Analyses

Though the studies discussed to this point have gone to great lengths in establishing a base of knowledge on drug courts, many of these efforts have been limited to one or a handful of study sites or have looked at only one or a few aspects of drug court operations. To address the need for more generalizable information on drug courts, recent research has focused on evaluating knowledge from the field as a whole, in the form of systemic reviews and meta-analyses.

In his review of 37 drug court process evaluations, Belenko (2001) found that participants are predominantly male (72%), are unemployed (49%), or have poor employment and education; have prior criminal records (74% had at least one felony charge); and had at least one failed attempt in treatment (76%). These offenders tend to have serious physical and mental health problems that complicate the recovery process. In addition, drug court clients have a high prevalence of reported prior physical and sexual abuse and suicide attempts. In accordance with postindictment recidivism, the evaluations are consistent with previous findings that a majority of the studies reveal a reduction in recidivism rates for drug court participants.

Turner et al. (2002) reviewed the Nationwide Evaluation of 14-Site Drug Treatment Court Programs conducted by the Drug Court Program Office in 1995–1996. The program was designed to describe and evaluate eligibility requirements, court and treatment requirements, and program implementation of 14 drug treatment courts representative of drug treatment court programs across the country. It was determined that the programs met the key qualifications of effective drug treatment court programs by integrating alcohol and drug user treatment services with justice system processing; following a nonadversarial approach, which promotes public safety while protecting the due process rights of the offender; providing access to drug-treatment-related services; frequently testing for abstinence; coordinating strategies to govern drug treatment court responses to participants’ compliance; and facilitating ongoing judicial interaction with each participant.

However, the authors conclude by stating that while drug treatment courts continue to grow in popularity, and while they have been found to be generally effective, there is still much to learn about how drug treatment courts work and how influential they are in reaching desired outcomes.

Belenko (1999) points to several weaknesses in existing research and gaps in knowledge. One of the major limitations of existing research revolves around outcome measures. While drug courts are often commended for their impact on recidivism, the meaning of this reduction is often limited, and it varies from study to study. Estimates on program retention and outcome measures on recidivism would wield more power if time periods were clearly specified. This would allow a more accurate comparison of findings for more established drug court programs, as compared to those early in their development, or on their last legs. Furthermore, these outcomes are most often defined by rearrest, while few evaluations include followup information outside of formal arrest data. Studies also tend to ignore those participants who quit or are discharged from drug court programs, leaving major questions about an even more at-risk segment of this already high-risk population and potentially overstating the benefits of participation.

The use of comparison groups in extant research is also troubling. Comparison groups are either not utilized or are composed of participants that differ from the typical drug court client, making true-to-form comparisons of drug court participants versus the general offender population difficult (Belenko, 1999).

Similar sentiments are shared by Wilson et al. (2006). In their meta-analysis, these researchers looked at the results of 55 evaluations on drug courts. These evaluations often showed a reduction in criminal offending in drug court groups as compared to control groups, but although the general findings suggest that drug offenders taking part in a drug court are less likely to reoffend than those sentenced to traditional corrections methods, these authors also point to flaws in study samples and methodologies as evidence that any congratulatory marks should be viewed through a critical lens. In other words, as stated by Goldkamp, White, and Robinson (2001), research as presently constructed tends to show that “successes succeed and the failures fail.”

Wilson et al. (2006) point to several improvements in future research that would advance the field. First, they state that the overall quality of study design should be improved so that more reliable and generalizable data can be gathered. They also point to the need for an expanded view of program effectiveness to include deeper measures of a program’s impact on substance use (not simply rearrest or failed drug tests) and the need for more detailed accounts of comparison groups.

5. What Is Missing From Current Research?

Though research has steadily increased and, perhaps more importantly, improved in recent years, the field is still lacking in several key areas. There exists a base of recommended drug court treatment practices and operations, and while it is known how these factors work in specific courts, there is not yet comprehensive knowledge of how they are implemented at a national level. The field needs expanded information regarding not only the number of drug courts and participants within them, but also knowledge of what these courts do and how they do it.

The National Drug Court Survey was conducted to help fill these gaps in knowledge. The study provides a picture of the national drug court landscape and the treatment delivery structure within it, giving the field a glimpse of the current state of drug courts, which can be used to form a baseline from which future growth and a plan for improvements can be established. The following will highlight findings from this study.

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