Drug Courts Are Not The Answer
Last week, the Government Office of Accountability released a report finding that 18 of 32 drug courts -- just over 50% -- reduce recidivism among participants. In other words, almost half of drug courts do not work to provide an efficient alternative to standard criminal justice proceedings.
“The message here is: enter a drug court at your own risk. The chance that you’ll enter a drug court that might help you avoid getting arrested again is about 50-50, the equivalent of a coin toss,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance.“ Clearly, the popularity that drug courts enjoy is not supported by the evidence.”
The GOA study is not the first to announce grim findings on the drug courts. The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE) recently completed the longest ever study of drug courts, and it found that the re-arrest rate for drug court participants was 10 percentage points below that of the comparison group, but not statistically significant: In other words, there was no difference, at least not one caused by chance. The same study also found that only 10 percent of participants reported an increase in their treatment level.
Almost 8 million Americans need drug treatment, according to the 2010 U.S. National Survey of Drug Use and Health, but finding it is expensive and time-consuming. For many Americans, and especially those among the 50 million who are uninsured, treatment is only accessible only through the criminal justice system, but there, options are limited, and often flawed.
Drug courts are intended to reduce recidivism by focusing less on jail and more on supervision and treatment, but the treatment they offer is abstinence-only focused, and relapse can translate into jail time. Drug courts also often choose participants likely to fare well in the program, such as recreational users or those without prior convictions (who are more likely to be black or Latino), instead of those who need the help the most. What's more, participants who relapse while participating in a drug court program may even face harsher penalties than those who did not enter the drugs courts in the first place. But for many addicts, total abstinence is not an immediately achievable goal.
The Drug Policy Alliance's report on drug courts explains the problem:
Drug courts are grounded in two contradictory models. The disease model assumes that people with an addiction disorder use drugs compulsively – that is, despite negative consequences. The rational actor model, which underlies principles of punishment, assumes that people weigh the benefits of their actions against the potential consequences of those actions.
These dueling models result in people being “treated” through a medical lens while the symptoms of their condition – chiefly, the inability to maintain abstinence – are addressed through a penal one. The person admitted into drug court is regarded as not fully rational and only partially responsible for their drug use; yet the same person is considered sufficiently rational and responsible to respond to the “carrots and sticks” (i.e., rewards and sanctions) of drug court.
Some people with serious drug problems respond to treatment in the drug court context; not the majority. The participants who stand the best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem, while those struggling with compulsive drug use are more likely to end up incarcerated. Participants with drug problems are also disadvantaged by inadequate treatment options. Drug courts typically allow insufficiently trained program staff to make treatment decisions and offer limited availability to quality and culturally appropriate treatment.
“Drug courts have actually helped to increase, not decrease, the criminal justice entanglement of people who struggle with drugs and have failed to provide quality treatment,” said Daniel Abrahamson, Drug Policy Alliance’s Director of Legal Affairs. “Only sentencing reform and expanded investment in health approaches to drug use will stem the flow of drug arrests and incarceration. The feel-good nature of drug courts hasn’t translated into results. U.S. drug policy must be based not on good intentions, but on robust, reliable research.”