Are drug courts working?

Mar 22, 2011

Drug courts have long been viewed as a success.  The courts give drug offenders charged with non-violent crimes the option of treatment rather than prison.

The courts, including those in Washington State, have proven effective in reducing repeat offenses. But some critics say too much money is being poured into drug courts.

The Justice Policy Institute is a think tank based in Washington D.C. that promotes “alternatives to incarceration.” So you might think it would really like drug courts, which, after all, keep offenders out of prison. 

But, the Institute has just put out a report highly critical of drug courts.  Natassia Walsh is a Justice Policy Institute research associate.

“ As long as drug courts are seen as the solution, we are unlikely to see attention drawn to the real problem, which is inadequate resources for people in the community before they get caught up in the criminal justice system," said Walsh.

In other words, money going into drug courts would be better spent on prevention.

Mary Taylor, who has run King County’s drug court for more than a decade, says prevention is a nice ideal, but once an addict commits a crime  he or she becomes part of the criminal justice system and has to be dealt with.  Drug courts, she says, are an effective way to do that.

“ Just the nature of addiction, people do better when coerced into it by the threat of prison time or jail time,” Taylor said.

Drug courts continue to receive funding in Washington state because lawmakers believe the courts  are a cost effective way to reduce crime. They have the research to back that up.

Research conducted over the past decade for the legislature by The Washington State Institute for Public Policy Institute has concluded that drug courts do reduce recidivism.

Institute researcher Steve Aos says drug courts, along with other treatment programs for different levels of offenders, are cost effective when you look at the long term data.

"You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket," he said.

And, he says, when looking at what is successful you might have to lower your expectations.  For example, drug courts in Washington reduce recidivism by only 7 % and that's considered a great success compared to many other programs in the criminal justice system.