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Drug courts

Evidence Rating

Scientifically Supported

Decision Makers

Drug courts are specialized courts that offer criminal offenders with drug dependency problems an alternative to adjudication or incarceration. These courts intensively supervise offenders, require drug testing and treatment (US GAO-Maurer 2011), and impose graduated sanctions for failed drug tests or program non-compliance (). Drug courts can specialize in subpopulations such as juvenile offenders or adults charged with drunk driving (Campbell-Mitchell 2012).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced recidivism

  • Reduced drug use

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced incarceration

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that drug courts reduce general and drug-related recidivism among adults (Campbell-Mitchell 2012, , , ). Evidence is slightly stronger for general adult drug courts than for courts that specialize in drunk driving offenses (Campbell-Mitchell 2012). Juvenile drug courts appear less effective than adult drug courts; additional evidence is needed to confirm effects on participating youth (, , Campbell-Mitchell 2012).

Drug court participation can reduce recidivism among high-risk substance abuse offenders more than probation (). Generally, adult offenders who graduate from drug court face little incarceration, while those who do not graduate face longer sentences than their counterparts in traditional court ().

Adult drug courts that can dismiss or expunge charges upon graduation appear more effective than those that cannot (Campbell-Mitchell 2012). Research suggests that a number of other program characteristics are associated with better outcomes, such as: limiting participation to nonviolent offenders, having longer treatment periods, conducting weekly staff meetings, or requiring restitution but not fines, community service, or Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous attendance ().

Juvenile drug courts appear to benefit program graduates the most; offenders who graduate from juvenile drug court are substantially less likely to re-offend than offenders who participate, but do not complete drug court programs (). Participants with a greater number of offenses and antisocial attitudes are more likely to reoffend than participants with fewer offenses (). Minorities, boys, and offenders with histories of delinquency, emotional and behavioral problems (), or caregivers who use drugs appear least likely to graduate from juvenile drug court (Halliday-Boykins 2010). Overall, juvenile courts that admit participants promptly and courts that build academic or job skills appear to have higher graduation rates than courts that do not ().

A Washington-based analysis estimates that drug courts cost about $3,226 per participant in 2016, with a benefit to cost ratio of $1.53 (WSIPP-Benefit cost).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

As of December 2014, over 3,000 drug courts were operating throughout the United States. More than half of these target adult offenders; the rest target DUI or juvenile offenders, families in the child welfare system, and other special populations (US NIJ-Drug courts). Drug courts also operate in other nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia (Campbell-Mitchell 2012).

Implementation Resources

NCJRS-Drug courts - National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS). Drug courts.

NDCI - National Drug Court Institute (NDCI).

US NIJ-Drug courts - US National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Drug courts.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Bruns 2012* - Bruns EJ, Pullman MD, Weathers ES, Wirschem ML, Murphy JK. Effects of a multidisciplinary family treatment drug court on child and family outcomes: Results of a quasi-experimental study. Child Maltreatment. 2012;17(3):218-30.

Campbell-Mitchell 2012 - Mitchell O, Wilson D, Eggers A, MacKenzie DL. Drug courts' effects on criminal offending for juveniles and adults. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2012:4.

Shaffer 2011* - Shaffer DK. Looking inside the black box of drug courts: A meta-analytic review. Justice Quarterly. 2011;28(3):493-521.

Halliday-Boykins 2010 - Halliday-Boykins CA, Schaeffer CM, Henggeler SW, et al. Predicting non-response to juvenile drug court interventions. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2010;39(4):318-28.

Stein 2013* - Stein DM, Deberard S, Homan K. Predicting success and failure in juvenile drug treatment court: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2013;44(2):159-68.

Rempel 2012* - Rempel M, Green M, Kralstein D. The impact of adult drug courts on crime and incarceration: Findings from a multi-site quasi-experimental design. Journal of Experimental Criminology. 2012;8(2):165-92.

WSIPP-Benefit cost - Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). Benefit-cost results.

Cheesman 2016* - Cheesman FL, Graves SE, Holt K, Kunkel TL, Lee CG, White MT. Drug court effectiveness and efficiency: Findings for Virginia. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. 2016;34(2):143-169.

Koetzle 2015* - Koetzle D, Listwan SJ, Guastaferro WP, Kobus K. Treating high-risk offenders in the community: The potential of drug courts. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 2015;59(5):449-465.

Konecky 2016* - Konecky B, Cellucci T, Mochrie K. Predictors of program failure in a juvenile drug court program. Addictive Behaviors. 2016;59:80-83.

Sullivan 2016* - Sullivan CJ, Blair L, Latessa EJ, Sullivan CC. Juvenile drug courts and recidivism: Results from a multisite outcome study. Justice Quarterly. 2016;33(2):291-318.

Stein 2015* - Stein DM, Homan KJ, DeBerard S. The effectiveness of juvenile treatment drug courts: A meta-analytic review of literature. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse. 2015;24(2):80-93.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

US NIJ-Drug courts - US National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Drug courts.

Campbell-Mitchell 2012 - Mitchell O, Wilson D, Eggers A, MacKenzie DL. Drug courts' effects on criminal offending for juveniles and adults. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2012:4.

Date Last Updated

Oct 19, 2016