Over the past several years, a broad consensus has emerged within the research community that adult drug courts indeed fulfill their promise of increased treatment retention rates and reduced recidivism. While it is difficult to generate exact national estimates, drug courts appear to retain from 60 to 65 percent of their participants for at least one year. This improves considerably on the 10 to 30 percent one-year retention rates that are typical of community-based treatment programs nationwide, where many participants enter voluntarily—without the pressure of a court mandate. Further, drug courts appear to average about a 15 percentage point reduction in the re-arrest rate when compared with conventional prosecution (although many drug courts have achieved considerably larger reductions). While most studies only track re-arrests over one or two years following program intake, several that track offenders over longer “post-program” periods—including studies of the Los Angeles Treatment Court, Baltimore City Treatment Court, and six New York State drug courts—have similarly found that drug courts reduce recidivism.
Drug court results vary considerably from site to site of course. As with many innovations showing early promise, results may decline as drug courts are institutionalized, early charismatic judges and other staff turn over, and funding resources grow more strained. Sustaining the model’s effectiveness may require a more surgical approach to research, focused less on “The bottom line”—do drug courts work?—and more on teasing out which specific components are truly essential. While to date research efforts in this area are limited, a few lessons have begun to emerge:
- Immediacy: Participants engaged early in the drug court process, often measured by whether they actually begin attending a community-based treatment program within the first thirty days after formally agreeing to enter a drug court, are more likely to be retained and have successful long-term outcomes.
- Legal Coercion: Part of the success of drug courts stems from the threat of jail for failure. However, legal coercion does not work magically on its own. Evidence indicates that drug courts elicit greater perceptions of coercion when staff conveys clearly, frequently, and specifically the exact consequences of graduating and failing (how much jail time will be served); and when participants perceive that noncompliance will be consistently and swiftly detected and enforced.
- Judicial Supervision: Biweekly judicial supervision before the drug court judge works especially well with “high-risk” participants (e.g., with those who have previous failed treatment or are diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder). Supervision that includes a great deal of positive feedback from the judge is particularly effective.
- Sanctions: Behavioral research is clear that sanctions are effective when applied consistently (in every case), fairly (everyone treated the same), rapidly (soon after the infraction), and with appropriate severity (severe enough to be undesirable but not so severe as to preclude graduating to a more severe sanction next time). The literature is limited with respect to which drug court sanctions are most effective, and under what circumstances, however.
- Rewards: The limited research that exists suggests that rewards appear to increase program retention when they are tangible and applied frequently throughout the participation process—not merely once every three or four months upon phase advancement.
- Treatment: In general, more time in treatment leads to more positive post-treatment outcomes on measures such as drug use, criminal activity, and employment. Ninety days in treatment is a critical minimum threshold, while on the other end of the spectrum, imposing excessive graduation requirements that keep participants in treatment far beyond one year may be counter-productive. While the evidence indicates that treatment can make a difference, little is known about which modalities (e.g., residential, outpatient, etc.) are most appropriate for different categories of participants.
- Graduation: Participants who reach drug court graduation are more likely to attain continued success thereafter. Can those who fail drug court nonetheless gain from the experience? Several studies suggest they cannot—that graduation is a pivotal milestone and that without it continued progress is unlikely. These findings highlight the importance for drug courts to maximize their graduation rate (again suggesting that graduation requirements should not be excessive).
Equally important as how drug courts work is for whom—which categories of defendants are especially likely to benefit. While little is known to date, three categories of defendants have emerged as likely candidates for success: (a) “high risk” defendant (e.g., more serious criminal history and weaker community ties), (b) those facing greater legal consequences for failing (e.g., those charged with more serious offenses and thus facing more potential jail time), and (c) drug offenders (i.e., as opposed to those arrested for property or other crimes, who may be driven by criminal impulses or motivations besides addiction).