Drug Courts: The Second Decade

By Eckley, Timothy S. | Judicature, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Drug Courts: The Second Decade


Eckley, Timothy S., Judicature


The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has issued a special report, Drug Courts: The Second Decade, that synthesizes findings from five NIJ-funded studies and addresses the effectiveness of the more than 1,500 operating drug courts in the United States.

The report begins with a brief summary and then is structured in six parts: (1) Overview of Drug Courts; (2) Target Populations, Participant Attributes, and Program Outcomes: The Clark County Experience; (3) The Judge's Role in Drug Court Participants' Success; (4) Treatment Issues in the Drug Court Setting; (5) Drug Court Intervention for Juveniles; and (6) Cost Benefit Analysis of a Mature Drug Court.

Drug courts emerged in the late 1980s (the first was in Miami, Florida in 1989) as an alternative to incarceration of drug users and to address rapidly increasing court caseloads and prison overcrowding. Systemic analysis of drug court operations and effectiveness can be difficult because of the varieties of focus of drug courts from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Different drug courts target different types or levels of offenders for different reasons. Thus, eligibility requirements and screening procedures may vary. As the NIJ report notes: "Targeting decisions require careful planning because they have an impact on every aspect of drug court operations . . . . Drug courts handling high-need, high risk offenders are likely to have lower graduation rates and higher rearrest rates than those targeting minor or first-time offenders."

A widely held presumption is that dedication of a single judge to an offender during the treatment program results in more favorable outcomes. The report identifies mixed results on this hypothesis and acknowledges more research is needed to account for numerous variables involved with judges' participation in the drug court regimen. Offenders in focus groups did verify that personal attention from the judge was "the most important influence in their drug court experience." Program participants who generally are exposed to a single judge exhibit greater treatment participation, which augers for an increased likelihood of success.

That drug courts with effective court-supervised treatment programs work is confirmed by research studies showing that graduates of drug court programs succeed, but terminated participants fail. The message is that retention and completion rates are paramount and that quality, delivery, and comprehensiveness of treatment must be monitored and deficiencies addressed. Meeting the drug court model of highly individualized treatment and follow-up is a wide-spread challenge.

The relationship between court operations and treatment services is also explored. Court and treatment staff agree that "substance abuse is related to and precedes criminal behavior, that coerced treatment is effective, and that treatment delivery is the primary goal of the drug court program.

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