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Drug Courts Do Reduce Recidivism and Lower Costs

| April 14, 2011

Last week, two think tanks committed to drug decriminalization—the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Justice Policy Institute (JPI)—wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing drug courts as “a case of good intentions being mistaken for a real solution.” While the authors were correct in realizing that there is “growing sentiment that incarceration is not an effective response to drug use” and that “treatment is a better option,” their criticisms of drug courts are ultimately unpersuasive and represent a misunderstanding of the available scientific literature.

In December, The Nation made similar arguments against drug courts, maintaining that “claims that drug courts have significantly reduced costs, incarceration, or drug use are unsupported by the evidence.” However, drug courts are one of the most studied of all criminal justice programs, and in 2009, a study by the National Institute for Justice—the Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation—confirmed that drug courts do in fact reduce crime, reduce substance abuse, and reduce family conflicts associated with domestic violence and child abuse. Compared to traditional criminal justice system processing, treatment and other investment costs averaged $1,392 lower per drug court participant, and reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant.

Particularly troubling was the claim that drug courts are “not found to be more effective than treatment in the community”—as if drug courts were intended to be an alternative to community based treatments. As Devarshi Bajpai of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission argues, “we strongly believe in the need for treatment resources to be available to people before they get in trouble with the law.” Unfortunately, people do get in trouble with the law, and when they do, “drug courts present a powerful tool for the criminal justice system to help both the offender and society.”

It should be recognized that although drug courts can and do have a number of benefits, several factors affect a drug court program’s success, including proper assessment and treatment, the role assumed by the judge and the nature of their interactions with the offender. Nevertheless, as Douglas B. Marlowe says, we should not “ignore the mountain of scientific evidence that proves their efficacy,” and the strategy that DPA and JPI employ in attempting to discredit drug courts is misguided.

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