The Potential of Social Science Theory for the Evaluation and Improvement of Drug Courts

By DeVall, Kristen E.; Gregory, Paul D. et al. | Journal of Drug Issues, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Potential of Social Science Theory for the Evaluation and Improvement of Drug Courts


DeVall, Kristen E., Gregory, Paul D., Hartmann, David J., Journal of Drug Issues


Abstract

As drug treatment courts developed over the past 20 years, they were increasingly and productively grounded in the philosophy of therapeutic jurisprudence and in the operational standards of the 10 key components. Both of these and particularly the growing literature on the efficacy of the key components offer guidance for the implementation and monitoring of programs and provide a logic for attributing outcomes to program operation. What then, if anything, might be gained by an explicit attention to what is generally called social science theory in understanding and modifying drug courts? This article addresses these questions and develops social learning theory as an example of the potential for this union of theoretical and practical concerns.

Keywords

drug courts, social learning theory, therapeutic jurisprudence, social science theory

Introduction

Like many social and behavioral interventions, drug courts have developed in response to a complex and variable environment. That environment has been dominated by legal and therapeutic concerns but has also contained multiple stakeholders and coalitions with attendant shifts of goals, needs, rhetorics, and even measures of effectiveness. The questions for this article are whether the drug court model has been driven or assessed in substantial ways by what is typically called social science theory1 and more importantly, what particular differences a theoretical approach might make to the future of drug courts.

Despite the substantial amount of research that has focused on drug courts, little work to date has been done to identify a theoretically driven basis for why these programs work the way they do and why we should expect positive outcomes from this alternative to the traditional criminal justice system (Stinchcomb, 2010). The fundamental advantage of theoretical explanations is one of credibility-that we put more faith in explanations that sensibly tell us why a relationship appears to hold. The assertion that drug courts are effective in achieving the stated goals (e.g., reducing recidivism, facilitating the recovery process for those chemically dependent individuals involved in the criminal justice system) without being able to explain why they are able to achieve these results leaves room for concern that the supposed effects are spurious and unlikely to be generalizable to other sites and times. Identifying this piece of the puzzle not only promises to address these points of criticism about effects in general but should focus attention on credible lynchpins for program monitoring and improvement.

In the next section, we provide a brief review of the empirical literature, including drug court evaluations that have used social science theory to interpret their findings. A discussion of what theory can offer the drug court movement follows. We discuss the differences between various types of theories that relate to the study of drug court programs: program theory, therapeutic jurisprudence, and social learning theory. Social learning theory is offered as an example (the one that the authors currently find most useful) of a social science theory that can explain why drug court programs work the way they do. We then provide a brief synopsis of the basic tenets of social learning theory and how it informs program theory and the 10 key components. To follow through on the example, we end by providing readers with a pre-post test survey that can be used by drug court researchers and evaluators to test this theory.

Drug Courts: A Review of Research in the Field

The drug court movement was born in the late 1980s in an effort to develop new approaches to dealing with drug/alcohol-dependent individuals involved in the criminal justice system. Although the majority of social policies of the time focused on increasingly harsh punishments (i.e., longer terms of incarceration, stiffer monetary penalties), the drug court movement sought to deal with drug/alcohol-dependent individuals more holistically, as cases involving these individuals were clogging the criminal justice system.

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