The first drug court started in Miami in 1989 as an effort to stop the cycle of drug addiction and crime.  The program brought together judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, addiction counselors, and social workers to collaboratively build an individualized treatment program.  Rather than sending people to jail, the drug court program was designed to treat addiction while participants lived in the community.  Drug courts have become an increasingly common way for communities to engage with low-level drug offenders.

Seeking to raise awareness and support for drug courts, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals has released a series of PSAs entitled, “All Rise.”  Using a mix of celebrities and drug court judges, these commercials assert that 75% of drug court participants are never arrested again.

The promise is clear.  Drug courts not only treat addiction, they also treat a number of social problems (“no more families torn apart… no more neglect… no more overdoses”).

Are drug courts really this successful?

The truth is, we still don’t know.  The 75% success statistic comes from a study published in 2003.  The authors report that only 27.5% of drug court participants had been re-arrested and charged with a serious crime within two years.  So, we don’t know what re-arrest rates look like after that two-year period and the data doesn’t include arrests for minor crimes or arrests for serious crimes that did not result in a charge.  This is a far cry from the claim made in the video: that 75% of drug court participants are never arrested again.

The claims asserted in the “All Rise” campaign, then, should be treated with caution.  That said, drug courts are a significant move away from punitiveness for addicted offenders. Increasing the time to reoffending is a very positive step for the offender, for the community, and for the criminal justice system.  Additionally, most recidivism occurs within three years of release, so if the drug court program is helping participants to make it past this milestone it may indeed lead to some graduates leaving criminality altogether.

But before we turn to drug courts as “the” solution, we need more research on the effectiveness of drug courts.  Women and Caucasians fare better in the program than men and people of color.  And large courts tend to be more effective than small courts. Nevertheless, since the 1990s drug courts have spread across the nation to all major cities and many medium and small-sized cities, some of which have limited resources and less dedication.  All Rise’s enthusiasm should be tempered with a critical eye aimed at making these programs work well, and for as many people as possible.

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Kimberly Baker is an assistant professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Ithaca College.  She teaches classes in crime, deviance, and law.  Her research is on drugs, addiction, and U.S. drug policy, including drug courts.

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