Drug Courts: Enter At Your Own Risk

The drug war is forty years old this year. It’s time to step back and ask ourselves what’s the best way to solve the problem we’re trying to solve — how to reduce drug abuse and addiction — and use the best available evidence to guide us.

That’s why we can’t ignore a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which finds that only 18 of 32 drug courts — or just over 50% — showed statistically significant reductions in recidivism among participants. That is, almost half of drug courts do not reduce re-arrest rates of their participants below the rates of people who went through the normal criminal justice process.

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.

These findings may seem unexpected, given the generally positive reputation of drug courts, but to those following the research this doesn’t come as a surprise. The popularity that drug courts enjoy is not supported by the evidence.

The GAO’s findings echo those of the five-year Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE), the longest and largest ever study of drug courts. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, MADCE recently reported a re-arrest rate for drug court participants that was 10 percentage points below that of the comparison group, but that the difference was not statistically significant. This means that the study effectively found no difference in re-arrest rates between the groups, as the decrease may be the result of chance.

This is significant because drug courts — criminal justice programs that seek to reduce drug use through mandated treatment and close judicial oversight — are supposed to help people address their drug problems and successfully exit the criminal justice system. But research shows that drug courts aren’t reliably doing this.

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