Drug Courts and Recidivism: The Results of an Evaluation Using Two Comparison Groups and Multiple Indicators of Recidivism

Article excerpt

Increases in the number of drug offenders appearing in state and federal courts, coupled with mounting evidence of both the linkages between drug use and crime and the efficacy of drug treatment programs, led many jurisdictions to implement drug treatment courts. Although these courts vary on a number of dimensions, most are designed to reduce drug use and criminal behavior among drug-involved offenders. This study evaluates the effectiveness of one drug court-the Douglas County (Omaha), Nebraska Drug Court-in reducing offender recidivism. We use a variety of analytical techniques to compare drug court participants and offenders in two matched comparison groups on a number of measures of recidivism. Our results reveal that drug court participants have substantially lower rates of recidivism than traditionally adjudicated felony drug offenders, and that the differences in recidivism rates between drug court participants and drug offenders who participated in a diversion program prior to the implementation of the drug court disappeared once we controlled for the offender's assessed level of risk, as indicated by his/her LSI score.

The past two decades have witnessed dramatic growth in the United States prison population. There were nearly 1.3 million persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons as of midyear 1999, compared to less than a quarter million in 1975 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999). Most commentators attribute this fivefold increase to increasingly severe sentencing practices for drug offenses (Mauer, 1999; Skolnick, 1997; Tonry, 1995). Mauer (1999, p. 32), for example, notes that the risk of receiving a prison sentence for a drug offense increased by 447 percent between 1980 and 1992. Statistics concerning the offenses for which state and federal prisoners are incarcerated support this conclusion. The percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for a drug offense nearly quadrupled from 1980 (6%) to 1996 (23%). Similarly, the percentage of federal prisoners serving time for a drug offense increased from 25 percent in 1980 to 60 percent in 1996. In fact, the increase in drug offenders accounted for nearly three-quarters of the total increase in federal inmates and one-third of the total increase in state inmates during this 16-year period (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

These statistics reflect a crime control policy premised on a theory of deterrence that Skolnick (1997, p. 411) characterizes as "superficially persuasive." The assumption is that sentencing drug offenders to prison for long periods of time will deter current and prospective offenders, leading eventually to a reduction in drug abuse and drug-related crime. As numerous commentators have observed, however, this assumption rests on the false premise that altering criminal penalties will alter behavior (Irwin & Austin, 1997; Paternoster, 1987, 1991; Tonry, 1995). In fact, scholarly research generally concludes that increasing the severity of penalties will have little, if any, effect on crime (see Caulkins,Rydell, Schwabe, & Chiesa, 1997 and Speckart, Anglin, & Deschenes, 1989 for research that assesses the deterrent effects of punishment for drug offenders). As Cohen and her colleagues (1998, p. 1260) recently noted, "Observers of the criminal justice system who in general agree on little else have joined in arguing that increased penalties for drug use and distribution at best have had a modest impact on the operation of illicit drug markets, on the price and availability of illicit drugs, and on consumption of illicit drugs."

Critics of the crime control approach, who maintain that the War on Drugs has failed and that "public safety has not improved as a result of the imprisonment binge" (Irwin & Austin, 1997, p. 140), have called for a new approach that balances public safety and public health interests. While acknowledging that imprisonment may be an appropriate penalty for some offenders, those who advocate a public health approach argue for expansion in the use of a variety of alternatives to incarceration. …