The Benefits of Drug Courts: How They Reduce Recidivism and Substance Use

Drug courts are an innovative approach to criminal justice that seeks to rehabilitate offenders involved in substance abuse and keep them out of jail. By combining medical treatment with behavioral therapy, drug courts have been proven to reduce recidivism, substance use, and the costs of drug-related crime. In addition, they are often supported by the communities in which they are implemented. A number of retrospective and quasi-experimental studies have shown that drug courts are achieving their objectives.

Graduates have lower rates of recidivism and substance use, and treatment is much more cost-effective than incarceration. For example, one study found that within a two-year follow-up period, the rate of new felony arrests dropped from 40 percent in drug court to 12 percent after drug court began in a county, and the rate of new felony arrests dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent in another county. Advocates of this system say it takes into account the defendant's needs and provides them with the help they need, while costing taxpayers much less than incarceration, and that society benefits from a reduction in crime and recidivism. Jurisdictions with drug courts have shown a drop of between 8% and 26% in their crime rates.

Participants in Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts (JDTC) face Juvenile Delinquency (JD) or Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) petitions in Family Court, where substance abuse is part of pending petition. Successful participation in the juvenile drug treatment court program usually results in the dismissal of the pending petition. There is no universal model for drug court programs, but there are two common ways in which people enter drug courts. Participants who had to undergo more drug tests each month were more likely to remain on treatment and meet drug court conditions.

In an unprecedented longitudinal study that accumulated recidivism and cost analysis of drug court cohorts over 10 years, NIJ researchers found that drug courts can reduce recidivism rates (rearrests) and significantly reduce costs. Unfortunately, there is no centralized registry for drug courts, which makes it very difficult to know exactly how many people attend drug courts each year. However, researchers from several studies have found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable parolees. Jurisdictions with drug courts have also seen a drop in their crime rates.

The Office of the Drug Court Program also recommends that drug courts bring in an external investigator with rehabilitation experience to facilitate the design and implementation of data collection and analysis. Unequivocally, judges involved in drug court programs argue that the drug court approach is much more effective than the traditional criminal process for the significant number of offenders who seriously want to address their substance addiction and change their lives. Given the vast regional and political variations represented by the six sites in this study, the implication is that the basic approach of drug courts works with multiple populations and approaches; there is no single way to implement an effective drug court. A Detailed Cost Analysis in a Mature Drug Court Establishing a Cost-Benefit Assessment of Multnomah County Drug Court has also shown that defendant oversight and monitoring, as well as treatment services, are significantly more immediate and intensive than would have been provided to the typical drug court defendant prior to the program.

The volume of cases assumed by drug court judges has also allowed the registration time of other judges to be freed up and made available for other criminal matters, as well as for civil cases that, in many jurisdictions, have been relegated to a secondary priority due to the volume of drug cases. With this in mind, new drug court teams can be assisted in their planning not only through an introduction to the basic components of the model (see NADCP 199), but also through an introduction to some of the multiple programmatic options and adaptations among which each drug court must inevitably choose. It may be that the drug court is more effective in reducing crimes related to drug use and addiction, but relatively less successful in reducing crime driven by other criminal impulses or motivations. There have been many studies evaluating drug courts over the past two decades, most of which suggest that they are at least somewhat effective. Drug courts help participants recover from addiction and prevent future criminal activities while reducing costs associated with repeatedly prosecuting low-level non-violent offenders through our country's courts, jails and prisons.

Wade Pfalmer
Wade Pfalmer

Hardcore organizer. Freelance zombie buff. Passionate social media junkie. Hardcore web specialist. Typical coffee fanatic. Lifelong tv fanatic.

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