Spotlight: Drug Courts

According to the National Institute of Justice, there are more than 3,000 drug courts across the United States.[1] As designed, these courts aim to rehabilitate drug-addicted offenders, reduce recidivism, and potentially reduce costs to the system through lower incarceration rates. Yet only a handful of studies have implemented a randomization design to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of such programs. Given that the results are not yet entirely clear due to variability in program design and research methodologies, the A2J Lab thinks this would be a great area of continued, rigorous research.

First, what exactly is a drug court? Drug courts are specialized treatment courts that offer monitored treatment, drug testing, and other services to offenders, with intensive court supervision as a key component. The treatment programs usually involve counseling, therapy and education, drug tests, and other services that target vocational, educational, family, health, and other issues. Meanwhile, intensive court supervision encourages compliance through status hearings and a system of rewards and sanctions. It is also believed that the intense relationship with the judge increases offender perceptions of procedural justice, which is thought to provide an additional deterrent to crime through trust and confidence in the judicial system.

To date, four randomized studies of drug courts have taken place (see this chart for details), and together they suggest that there may be some positive effects of drug court participation on drug use and recidivism, although it is quite unclear how long these effects last after the offenders complete the programs. Additionally, variation in the programs themselves as well as the outcomes collected make it hard to understand what to make of the findings. Notably, the studies vary in terms of the timing of the intervention (pretrial, post-adjudication, post-conviction), participant eligibility, comparison groups, program length, and timing of outcome collection, as well as the definition of recidivism.

Broadly speaking, the studies suggest:

  • An Arizona study of a post-adjudication drug court involving probationers with a first time felony conviction for drug possession found lower re-arrest rates and technical violations among drug court participants when measured 36 months after the randomization. When measured 12 months after randomization, the re-arrest rate differences were not found and the technical violation differences were only found for drug-related technical violations.
  • A Washington, D.C. study of a pretrial drug court program involving drug felony defendants found reduced drug use during the program (within 12 months of randomization), though this effect was not sustained for the year after sentencing. This study did not reveal significant differences in re-arrest rates for the drug court program compared to the standard docket a year after sentencing.
  • A Maryland study of a post-conviction drug court program involving drug-involved, non-violent offenders found that drug court participants reported using fewer types of drugs than the control group 36 months after the randomization and were less likely to be rearrested during the program and within 24 months of randomization. By 36 months after the randomization, 3/4ths of the study participants had been re-arrested regardless of their group assignment.
  • An Oregon study of a post-adjudication drug court program involving offenders on probation, parole, and post-prison supervision found that 12 months after randomization the drug court group had fewer new charges, including fewer new drug-specific charges than the control group.

Given the prevalence of drug courts and the lack of certainty regarding whether they are achieving their intended goals, the A2J Lab would like to see more randomized studies in this arena. And, specifically, we think there is a need for carefully describing, defining, and measuring the processes and activities that occur in drug courts, what the key ingredients are, and how to determine the short and long term outcomes on offenders and public safety. Do you work with or within a drug court? What are you hoping it accomplishes? Would you be interested in finding out whether it achieves those aims? The A2J Lab would be happy to work with interested field partners or researchers to tackle this topic!

[1] See


Drug Court RCTs

Although this chart can’t possibly cover all of the important nuances of these studies, it will give you a general sense of the key features of the data collections, study design, and results.

Study LocationOffenders EligibilityProgram DescriptionRandomizationFindings
Maricopa County, AZ[1]Probationers with a first time felony conviction for drug possessionPost-Adjudication, rewards include reduction in probation time and feesRandomized to drug court or to routine probation (3 tracks with varied intensity)1. Drug use: no significant differences
2. Re-arrest: 12 months after randomization, there were no differences between drug court participants and routine probation. At 36 months, however, there were lower re-arrest rates for the drug court group compared to routine probation: drug court participants averaged 2 violations compared to 3 for the routine probation group.
3. Drug-related violations: lower violation rates for treatment group compared to probation tracks at 12 months and 36 months. At 12 months, 10% of the drug court group and 26% of routine probationers had received a drug-related technical violation. At 36 months, this effect was seen for all types of technical violations (not limited to drug-related): 64% of the drug court group and 75.2% of the probationers had received a technical violation.
Washington, D.C. Superior Court[2]Drug felony defendants (not limited to addicts)Pretrial, rewards include reductions to severity of criminal penaltiesRandomized to drug court, sanctions docket or standard docket1. Drug use: both the drug court and the sanctions docket exhibited reduced drug use, measured 12 months after randomization, compared to the standard docket. Specifically, 17% of the drug court group and 21% of the sanctions group, compared to 11% of the standard docket tested drug free 12 months after randomization. When asked about their drug use during the year after sentencing, there were no significant differences between the groups, however.
2. Re-arrest: the sanctions group was less likely than standard docket to report having been arrested in year following sentencing: 19% of the sanctions group compared to 27% of the standard docket were re-arrested. This difference was not observed for drug court vs standard docket, however.
3. Other Social Outcomes: no differences overall across a range of social and economic outcomes. Drug court participants were less likely to have accidents with vehicle while under the influence.
Baltimore, MD[3]Drug-involved, non-violent offenders.


Referred from one of two tracks: 1) circuit court felony cases supervised by parole and probation and 2) district court misdemeanor cases supervised by parole and probation.

Post-conviction, such that successful completion of the program would result in dropped charges.Randomization to drug court vs control (treatment as usual)1. Self-Reported Drug use: drug court group self-reported using fewer types of drugs used than control group, 3 years after randomization. Specifically, drug court participants scored lower on the drug variety scale compared to control group (0.14 vs. 0.18) and lower on an alcohol addiction scale as well (1.2 vs. 1.4).
2. Re-arrest: drug court clients were less likely to be rearrested during the program and at 24 months. Within 12 months of the randomization, 48% of the drug court group compared to 64% of the control group were arrested for new offenses. At 24 months following the randomization, 66.2% of the drug court group and 81.3% of the control group were arrested for new offenses. At 36 months, the difference between the groups was no longer significant; by this point 3/4ths had been re-arrested regardless of their assigned group.Recidivism was found to be lowest among subjects who participate at higher levels in certified drug treatment, status hearings, and drug testing.
3. Time to re-arrest: drug court group had longer time to first re-arrest than control (adjusted for incarceration time). The two groups were essentially identical for the first 4 months, after which the drug court program had a greater impact.
4. Incarceration: no differences in number of days incarcerated, measured at 36 months.
5. Self-reported criminal activity: Drug court group self-reported less involvement in criminal activity than control group 3 years after randomization.
6. Drug-related violations: drug court group was significantly less likely to have been arrested for a drug offense compared to control, measured at 36 months from randomization. Specifically, 55.5% of the drug court group and 68.4% of the control group had a drug charge at 36 months.
7. Other Social Outcomes: drug court group was less likely than control group to be on welfare rolls, 36 months after randomization. Specifically, 4.3% of the drug court group compared to 10.9% of the control group were receiving money from welfare 36 months after the randomization. There were few differences between groups for the other social outcomes measured.
Douglas, Jackson, Multnomah, and Umatilla Counties, OR[4]Offenders convicted of Measure 57 Offenses (felony property or repeat drug delivery offense + 3+ on Texas Christian University drug screen)Post-adjudication, offenders on probation, parole, and post-prison supervisionRandomized to drug court vs control (probation)1. Drug use: at 18 month (post-randomization) follow-up interview, there were no significant differences of self-reported drug use within 30 days of the interview, with one exception: a larger proportion of drug court participants (42% at random assignment and 16% at follow up) relative to control participants (17% and 0%) reported having used marijuana within the most recent 30 days. Across all drug categories except injection drugs, the percentage of users decreased significantly at follow up for both groups, suggesting that court involvement generally may be related to reductions in substance use.
2. New charges: Drug court group had fewer new charges than control group within 1 year of randomization. Specifically, the drug court group had 28% fewer new charges and 26% fewer new cases than the control group.
3. Drug-related charges: Drug court group had 33% fewer new drug charges than the control group within 1 year of randomization.

[1] Deschenes, Elizabeth Piper; Susan Turner and Peter W. Greenwood (1995) “Drug Court or Probation?: An Experimental Evaluation of Maricopa County’s Drug Court” The Justice System Journal, Volume 18, Number 1: 55-73; Turner, Susan et al (2002) A Decade of Drug treatment Court Research. Substance use & Misuse, Vol 37, No 12&13: 1489-1527

[2] Harrell, A.V., Cavanagh, S., & Roman, J. (1998) Final report: Findings from the evaluation of the D.C. Superior Court Drug Intervention Program. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute

[3] Banks, Duren and Denise C Gottfredson (2004) “Participation in Drug Treatment Court and Time to Arrest” Justice Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 3: 637-658; Gottfredson, D.C & Exum, M.L (2002) The Baltimore city Drug Treatment court: One-Year Results form a Randomized Study. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. Vol 39: 337-356; Gottfredson, D.C., Najaka, S.S., & Kearley, B.W. (2003) Effectiveness of Drug Treatment Courts: Evidence From a Randomized Trial. Criminology and Public Policy. Vol 2: 171-196; Gottfredson, D.C., Kearley, B.W., Najaka, S.S., & Rocha, C.M (2005) The Baltimore City Drug Treatment court: three Year Self-Report Outcome Study. Evaluation Review. Vol 29: 42-64; Gottfredson, D.C., Najaka, S.S., Kearley, B.W., & Rocha, C.M (2006) Long-Term Effects of Participation in the Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court: Results from an Experimental Study. Journal of Experimental Criminology. Vol 2; 67-98; Gottfredson, D.C., Kearley, Brook W., Najaka, S.S., Rocha, C.M (2007) How Drug Treatment courts Work: An Analysis of mediators. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. Vol 44, Issue 3; 3-35; Gottfredson, D.C., Kearley, B. W., Brook, W. & ushway, S.D. (2008) Substance Use, Drug Treatment, and Crime: An Examination of Intra-Individual Variation in a Drug Court Population. Journal of Drug Issues. Vol 38, Issue 2. Pp 601.

[4] Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and NPC Research (2015) Randomized Controlled Trial of Measure 57 Intensive Drug Court for Medium- to High-Risk Property Offenders.

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