Do Drug Courts Work?

Do drug and other specialty courts reduce recidivism? President Trump wants them, but are they effective? Like evaluations of programs for serious offenders, outcomes for drug, mental health, and veteran’s courts are limited to small decreases in recidivism.

For many, the focus is on low-level, low-risk offenders who may not need intensive treatment.

From The Crime Report: President Trump’s opioid commission recommended dozens of sweeping policy changes to address the nation’s addiction epidemic, including establishing federal drug courts in all 93 judicial districts…, USA Today reports.

So the question remains, do drug and other specialty courts reduce recidivism?

The answer? When they work, the overall effects are modest, between 8 and 14 percent reductions compared to similar offenders who did not participate in a drug court program. Like results for more serious offenders, the overwhelming number of participants are unaffected by programs.

Federal Judge

While some accept these results as promising, would you express comfort if the vast majority of cancer patients were unaffected by treatment?

I did a podcast in Washington, D.C. where proponents of various specialty courts were guests. I love the concept of specialty courts; they give lower-level offenders a chance to confront their issues and escape a formal sanction by the justice system.

On one show, I had to stop the taping (which was extremely rare) because a guest made an absurd claim that the vast majority of offenders in drug courts didn’t recidivate. I knew that the data suggested some success for drug courts, but on a much smaller scale.


I wrote previous articles on recidivism efforts for higher-level offenders where I stated, “The collective data indicate that programs for offenders either don’t work, or make things worse, or have very limited results,” Crime in America-Rehabilitation. “This analysis does not include diversion efforts.”

Readers then asked about diversion efforts which, generally speaking, include drug, mental health, and veteran’s courts.

There are additional diversionary efforts in prosecutors offices that are more informal (i.e., completing community service for a chance of dropped charges for minor or first-time offenders).

Regardless, how well do diversionary courts work? The answer comes from the US Sentencing Commission and it probably provides the simplest overview of specialty courts. It’s offered verbatim with minor rearrangements for readability.

Outcome Evaluations of State Court Programs

During the past two decades, there have been many evaluations of state problem-solving courts—in particular, assessing their efficacy in rehabilitating offenders by reducing illegal drug use and other types of recidivism (referred to as “outcome” or “impact” evaluations).

The vast majority of outcome evaluations have examined state drug courts. Professors Edward Latessa and Angela Reiter reviewed studies from 2000 to 2014 and concluded that:

The findings are mixed. Some studies show that drug courts have no effect on recidivism, and at least one study found that participation in the drug court was associated with increased rates of recidivism.

The majority of studies, however, show adult drug courts are effective in reducing the recidivism rate of the group, although with varying degrees of effectiveness.

They also reviewed meta-analytical studies of drug court evaluations, which can provide a better indication of the efficacy of the drug court model than simply reviewing a number of individual studies with a wide range of results.

Their meta-analytical review concluded that:

Virtually all of these studies [including one from 2015] have concluded that adult drug courts are effective in reducing recidivism; however, the overall effect is modest, between 8 and 14 percent reductions compared to similar offenders who did not participate in a drug court program.

It is noteworthy that methodological limitations of many state drug court evaluations include small sample sizes, self-selection bias, a lack of meaningful comparison groups, and varying types of eligibility criteria and program implementation that make large-scale studies difficult. In addition, few studies have examined the relationship between reduced recidivism and specific program components, and those that did so have not established the effect of specific components of the drug court model.

For example, while certain studies suggest that the special role of a judge as the active leader of a drug court team contributes to lower recidivism rates, no study has directly shown that the participation of a judge as the team leader was the reason for less recidivism.

Another methodological limitation is that follow-up periods of study—that is, the time period in which drug court participants were tracked—have usually been relatively short.

Most studies only have tracked participants during their treatment in the court program (12 to 24 months) or for an additional year or so thereafter.

Long-term follow-up periods (over three years) in the studies are rare.

Finally, an assessment of existing research about state drug courts must take into consideration the type of participating defendants.

Many state programs focus on low-level, low-risk offenders who may not need intensive treatment to prevent further substance use, which has led critics to accuse those court programs of “cherry-picking” in order to show low recidivism rates of their participants.

Notably, a leading proponent of drug courts, Douglas Marlowe, Chief of Science, Law & Policy for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, has contended that drug court programs generally should be limited to high-risk, high-need defendants.

Far fewer studies have evaluated state mental health courts, veteran’s courts, and other types of problem-solving courts (e.g., youthful offender courts), and many of those that have done so have been criticized as not being methodologically sound.

Limited research has suggested that mental health court participants have lower rates of recidivism than mentally ill individuals who proceed through traditional modes of criminal adjudication.

The leading meta-analysis on mental health court effectiveness shows that mental health court participants were less likely to be arrested and spent fewer days incarcerated during a one and one-half year follow-up period compared to similarly situated individuals sentenced to jail.

Evidence of the effectiveness of veteran’s courts is even less robust. Many veterans’ courts have difficulty with collecting and reporting data. For example, a Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) study revealed that only ten of 99 courts surveyed had any kind of formal data reporting, and none had conducted program evaluations.


When it comes to programs for offenders, the results are often negligible.

I offer possible solutions by addressing mental health, see Mental Health, and the use of global positioning system tracking (GPS), see GPS Tracking.


US Sentencing Commission

The Crime Report

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.