Effectiveness of Drug Court

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The drug court program was created as an alternative to the traditional court systems. Proponents of the program recognized that the traditional court system was failing those individuals with a serious addiction problem. The traditional courts would imprison an individual committed of a crime, they would end up in a prison where drugs were readily available through the prison’s black market, would be released after they serve their time and would end up in the system again after committing a crime to obtain drugs. The drug court system was designed to end this vicious cycle of recidivism among those individuals who have an addiction problem. However, the effectiveness of the program has been debated among policy makers. The drug court programs effectiveness in both reducing rates of recidivism and addiction will be analyzed as well as possible alternatives.

Individuals become involved in drug court when they first commit a crime and are brought in front of a judge. If a determination can be made that if the individual has a substance abuse problem and would not have committed the crime had they not had an addiction problem they will be sentenced to drug court rather than having to serve jail time. Within drug court the time spent would not be east as they would have to meet a number of requirements and would have to adhere to strict restrictions. The individual would have to submit to regular drug screenings that would be conducted at random times to ensure that they would not be able to cheat the system. They would then have to attend regular individual and group therapy session to address their substance abuse problems. If the substance abuse counselor feels that they may have mental health issues they may also have to participate in mental health counseling. Research has shown a significant correlation between Black American's substance abuse and mental health. Along with these services job placement and other rehabilitative services would be provided to prepare the individual to return to society. The individual's progress would be reported to drug court frequently and they would have to appear in front of the judge regularly to report. If they are not meeting the requirements, they will be subject to longer time in the drug court program or even have to serve jail time. Marlowe’s research surrounding drug court determined that these sanctions did not have to be humiliating in order to be effective. “This research reveals that sanctions need not be painful, humiliating, or injurious and that sanctions are in the eyes of the person receiving them” (Marlowe, 1999, p. 1). Therefore, other sanctions can be devises that are less humiliating and life altering. Along with these restrictions the individual also has to pay for being involved in the drug court program. These fees would have to be paid on a regular basis or this could be grounds for having to participate in the drug court program on a longer basis. The strict requirements of the program would make it difficult for a regular person to adhere to let alone someone who has substance abuse problems that have severely limited the individuals functioning. 

The rigid nature of the drug court program can make it difficult to complete for most of the individuals who enter the program. These individuals often return to using drugs and have to serve jail time or they drop from the program and have to remain in hiding as warrants become issues for their arrests. Despite these cases the effectiveness of the program is highly lauded as a successful approach to solving the issue of drug addiction and crime. Wilson (2006) found in his studies that the program was effective in reducing recidivism rates. “The overall findings tentatively suggest that drug offenders participating in a drug court are less likely to reoffend than similar offenders sentenced to traditional correctional options” (Wilson, 2006, p. 459). However, this data does not discuss the number of individuals who actually complete the drug court program thereby guaranteeing their freedom. An individual is released from all charges only after they complete the program.

The case has also been made for the program that the cost to the state is less than it would be if they imprisoned these individuals. This logic comes from the fact that the individuals in the program have to pay fees to pay for the program. However, the amount that they pay is not equal to the amount that is spent on the services they receive. Gottfredson (2003) found in his study that even individuals who are involved in the drug court program are incarcerated before they are enrolled in the program. “However, DTCs will not necessarily result in cost reductions because DTC and control cases are incarcerated for approximately equal numbers of days” (Gottfredson, 2003, p. 171). This adds to the cost of also providing additional services. The fees that the individuals pay also add to the restrictive nature of the program. Many of these individuals do not have a steady source of income due to their drug addiction. The fees that they have to pay may put increased pressure on these individuals to return to drug dealing and as a result resorting to drug-using behaviors again. 

The goals of the drug court program are commendable. The program attempts to take individuals who have substance abuse problems and rather than place them in prison they try to rehabilitate them. However, the restrictive nature of the program implies that the policy makers who are responsible for the program do not understand the functional capacity of the individuals involved. Individuals with substance abuse problems have often used drugs that have left their brains impaired for years. This impairment can make it difficult for these individuals to be able to participate with the requirements of the program. The program also does not individualize as all individuals are treated equally regardless of their drug of choice. However, studies have found that not all substance users respond to the drug court program. “Results indicated that the drug court reduced recidivism for methamphetamine-involved and other types of drug-using offenders; however, among DWI offenders, drug court graduation was not related to reduced recidivism, as it was among non-DWI offenders.  (Bouffard, 2007, p. 274). Adjusting the drug court program can be difficult as the strict requirements are in place to ensure that these individuals do not relapse. However, another model of treatment may need to be put in place to ensure that the drug court program is effective.  


Bouffard, J. A., & Richardson, K. A. (2007). The Effectiveness of Drug Court Programming for Specific Kinds of Offenders Methamphetamine and DWI Offenders Versus Other Drug-Involved Offenders. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(3), 274-293.

Gottfredson, D. C., Najaka, S. S., & Kearley, B. (2003). Effectiveness of drug treatment courts: Evidence from a randomized trial. Criminology & Public Policy, 2(2), 171-196

Marlowe, D. B., & Kirby, K. C. (1999). Effective use of sanctions in drug courts: Lessons from behavioral research. National Drug Court Institute Review, 2(1), 1-31.

Wilson, D. B., Mitchell, O., & MacKenzie, D. L. (2006). A systematic review of drug court effects on recidivism. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2(4), 459-487.