Do Drug Courts Work? Findings From Drug Court Research

Since its 1993 evaluation of the first drug court (the Miami-Dade County Felony Drug Court), NIJ has sponsored research examining drug court processes, outcomes and costs. A recent example is the 10-year study of the Multnomah County drug court in Portland, Oregon.

Impact of Drug Courts on Recidivism and Cost

Lower recidivism. Using retrospective data, researchers in several studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable probationers. For example, one study found that within a two-year follow-up period, the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 40 percent before the drug court to 12 percent after the drug court started in one county, and the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent in another county. [1]

In an unprecedented longitudinal study that accumulated recidivism and cost analyses of drug court cohorts over 10 years, NIJ researchers found that drug courts may lower recidivism rates (re-arrests) and significantly lower costs. They used data from a primarily pre-plea adult drug court in Portland, Oregon, to track 6,500 offenders who participated in the Multnomah County Drug Court between 1991 and 2001. Re-arrests were lower five years or more later compared to re-arrests for similar drug offenders within the same county.

The researchers also found, however, that the drug courts' impact on recidivism varied by year as a result of changes in programming and judge assignments over time. Reductions in recidivism ranged from 17 to 26 percent.

Lower costs. Compared to traditional criminal justice system processing, treatment and other investment costs averaged $1,392 lower per drug court participant. Reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant (or $12,218 if victimization costs are included).[2]

Factors for success. Although general research findings are that drug courts can reduce recidivism and promote other positive outcomes such as cost savings, several factors affect a drug court program's success:

  • Proper assessment and treatment.
  • The role assumed by the judge and the nature of offender interactions with the judge.
  • Other variable influences such as drug use trends, staff turnover and resource allocation.

These and other issues, such as treatment service delivery and judicial interaction, are addressed in the NIJ special report, Drug Courts: The Second Decade.

Through the Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation program, NIJ researchers are now examining underlying processes to identify what practices are effective, for whom, and under what conditions.

Date Modified: May 12, 2008