Female Drug Offenders Reflect on Their Experiences with a County Drug Court Program

By Roberts, James C.; Wolfer, Loreen | The Qualitative Report, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Female Drug Offenders Reflect on Their Experiences with a County Drug Court Program


Roberts, James C., Wolfer, Loreen, The Qualitative Report


The social concern over the prevalence of drug use and the cost of treating drug offenders continues. According to National Institute of Justice, more than half of all the people arrested in the United States test positive for illegal drugs (NIJ, 2007). Furthermore, while men are still more likely to use illegal drugs than are women, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that almost half (41.8%) of women aged 12 and older have reported use of an illicit drug at some point (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2008b). The number of women who are arrested for drug related crimes has also been increasing. In 2008, women accounted for 185,201 drug related arrests in the United States, a figure that is 19.3% higher than it was in 1999 (FBI, 2008).

Not surprisingly, as the correlation between drug use and crime became even more evident, government agencies looked for new ways to treat individuals with drug addictions; and, one of the most promising ways appeared to be drug courts. Operating in the United States since 1989, there are now over 2,140 active drug courts in the United States (Office of National Drug Control Policy, n.d.). Studies generally find drug courts to be an effective means of reducing recidivism (Fielding, Tye, Ogawa, Imam, & Long, 2002; Goldkamp, White, & Robinson, 2001; Peters & Murrin, 2000; Wolfe, Guydish, & Termondt, 2002); however, a recent report published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (2008a) recognizes that drug courts still "faces challenges in developing outcome-oriented measures focusing on post-program recidivism" (p. 106).

Some researchers have commented on the problems and, in some views, limited scope of drug court evaluation studies (Belenko, 1998; Sanford & Arrigo, 2005). For example, Fischer, Geiger, and Hughes (2007) argue that the bulk of the drug court research is quantitative and focuses more on clients as a group as opposed to examining whether the processes, benefits, and perceived "costs" vary by sub-groups, such as gender.

Drug court research is slowly moving in this direction (Fischer et al., 2007; Goldkamp et al., 2001; Hartman, Listwan, & Shaffer, 2007). Goldkamp et al. conducted qualitative research by studying focus groups of graduates from county drug court programs in Oakland, California, Portland, Oregon, Las Vegas, Nevada, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Kalamazoo, Michigan and asked them their views about various aspects of their treatment experiences. While those interviewed in this study felt that drug courts were generally helpful, many felt that some individuals entering these programs are not initially serious about recovery and only participate to avoid going to jail. On the other hand, many graduates also stated that people generally become more committed to the program and to recovery as they progress through the program and that program structure, fear of sanctions (especially jail time), drug tests, court encouragement, and favorable interactions with their counselors are all key factors that contribute to the program effectiveness. Goldkamp and colleagues' research treats the clients as a unit; they do not, however, examine whether there is any variation in experiences based on clients' gender.

Fischer et al.'s (2007) study, on the other hand, does. These researchers examined 11 female drug court clients in a northern California drug court program regarding their views of the various drug court team members (most notably the judge), the court processes (like urine screens, reward and sanctions), their drug counseling, their lives before and during the program, and the various skills they acquired while in the program. Fischer and colleagues found that the program staff in general, and their level of caring towards the clients in particular, were key program components that made the program successful to female clients. However, like Goldkamp et al. (2001), these researchers found that in order for the program to succeed, the clients had to be truly willing to give up drugs, to be honest with themselves, and to stop being deceitful. …

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