Additional Resources:

Practice Profile

Adult Drug Courts

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

Promising - More than one Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Drug and alcohol offenses
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Drugs & Substance Abuse - Multiple substances

Practice Description

Practice Goals

Drug courts aim to reduce recidivism and substance abuse among eligible, nonviolent drug offenders. Drug courts require participants to abstain from drug and alcohol use, be accountable for their behavior, and fulfill the legal responsibilities of the offenses they committed. Ultimately, drug court programs are designed to rehabilitate drug offenders and teach accountability. Often used as an alternative to incarceration (post-adjudication models), drug courts provide offenders an opportunity to receive treatment and education services designed to help them live crime-free lives, while still being closely monitored. Drugs courts may also operate as diversion programs (pre-adjudication models) where offenders are offered entry into the drug court with an agreement that the charges against them will be reduced or dismissed upon successful program completion.

Target Population

Adult drug court programs target adults age 18 and older. Demographically, the population is diverse. Eligibility criteria for entering a drug court program are determined by certain characteristics including offense type, criminal history, and substance abuse history. Typically, drug court programs do not allow violent offenders to participate.

Practice Components

In 1997, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) established six key components of drug courts: (1) collaborative, non-adversarial, outcome driven court processing; (2) early identification of eligible offenders; (3) drug treatment integrated into criminal justice case processing; (4) urine testing; (5) judicial monitoring; and (6) the use of graduated sanctions/rewards (NADCP, 2012). Adult drug court treatment objectives are based on the six components that NADCP proposes.

The main components of drug court programs include screening participants for drugs and alcohol, ensuring participants comply with treatment, and making sure participants attend status hearings in order for judicial staff to monitor individual progress in court. Judicial staff collaborates with drug court staff to determine individual sanctions or rewards in response to a participant’s positive or negative behavior. Various rewards such as praise, tokens of achievement, or advancement to the next program phase are used to motivate progress. Sanctions may include increased treatment attendance, community service, or brief jail stays. It is up to each court's discretion to determine which sanctions and awards are suitable for the situation.

If participants are compliant with program requirements, then advancement through three or more less intense stages occurs. Judicial and drug court staff members must decide if a participant has met the requirements of the phase necessary to progress.

If participants comply with program structure and complete mandated requirements, then successful completion is possible. The incentive to complete the program successfully is typically a reduced or dismissed charge.

Practice Theory

According to Shaffer (2011) drug court programs are based on the theoretical perspective of Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ). In a practical application of drug courts, this means that interactions between judicial staff and defendants, the structure and organization of the court proceedings, and legal rules and policies are all dealt with in a manner that encourages health and positive growth. TJ is applicable to drug court programs because the aim is to improve the lives of drug users. However, Shaffer cautions that while TJ is relevant to drug court programs, it does not prescribe what types of treatment should be provided to offenders outside of the courtroom setting.

For information on components that may impact the effectiveness of adult drug court programs, please see “Other Information.”

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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Promising - More than one Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Overall, the meta-analyses examining the effect of adult drug courts found that program participants were less likely to recidivate compared to offenders who did not participate. Synthesizing results across 26 studies, Aos and colleagues (2001) found a small negative mean effect size (d=-0.08), meaning that recidivism rates were, on average, lower for participants in drug court programs compared to individuals who did not enter into a drug court. Similarly, Drake (2012) analyzed 55 studies and also found a small negative effect (d=-0.25) showing a decrease in recidivism for program participants. Other studies have estimated the effect of drug courts using different methodologies. For instance, Shaffer (2010) used a phi coefficient to estimate the size of the program effect. The researchers calculated a small mean effect size (f=0.09) across 60 studies revealing a significant decrease in the recidivism of drug court participants compared to non-participants. Here a positive effect size suggests that, similar to the Aos and Drake findings, drug courts reduce recidivism rates compared to traditional criminal justice responses. Latimer and colleagues (2006), also using the phi coefficient, found a comparable small positive mean effect (f=0.16) in their review of 54 drug court studies. However, the findings were not significant. Analyzing results across 92 studies, Mitchell and colleagues (2012) used odds ratios to calculate the size of the program effect. In this study, the authors found a small to medium mean positive effect (OR=1.66) suggesting that compared to nonparticipants, recidivism rates among drug court participants were significantly lower. Finally, Sevigny, Fuleihan, and Ferdik (2013) found a significant moderate effect (logs odds ratio=-0.77) on recidivism (measured as reincarceration) favoring the treatment group. This means that relative to an assumed 50 percent incarceration rate for the comparison group, drug court participants had a 31.6 percent overall incarceration rate, or fewer than 184 incarcerations per 1,000 drug court participants.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Drug and alcohol offenses
Mitchell and colleagues (2012) reviewed 42 studies that examined the effect of participating in a drug court program on drug-related offenses. The authors found a significant odds ratio of 1.7. This means that relative to a 50 percent recidivism rate in the comparison group (a typical value), the odds ratio translates into a recidivism rate of approximately 37 percent for drug court participants, meaning on average, drug court participants have a recidivism rate about 13 percentage points lower than nonparticipants.
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Drugs & Substance Abuse - Multiple substances
Mitchell and colleagues (2012) reviewed four studies that examined the effect of participating in a drug court program on drug use and found an odds ratio of 1.45, which indicates reduced drug use for drug court participants compared to nonparticipants. However, because of the small number of studies, the effect size was not significant.
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11993 - 20002614691
Meta-Analysis 21993 - 20056617214
Meta-Analysis 31993 - 20111540
Meta-Analysis 41994 - 20066020830
Meta-Analysis 51990 - 2012510
Meta-Analysis 61995 - 2012115973

Meta-Analysis 1
Aos and colleagues (2001) set out to evaluate the costs and benefits of certain juvenile and adult criminal justice policies, violence prevention programs, and other efforts to decrease certain at-risk behaviors of juveniles and adults. They used meta-analytic techniques to estimate the degree to which a program or policy can be expected to influence the outcome of interest (i.e., criminality).

The review focused on evaluations that measured a program’s effect on criminal behavior. Program evaluations were gathered from a wide variety of sources, including studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as other studies not published in journals (such as government or private agency sources). Once evaluations that met the criteria of inclusion were located, four types of information on the program’s effectiveness in reducing crime were recorded: (1) Did the program affect the percent of the population that offended or reoffend? (2) Of those that offended or reoffended, did the program change the average number of offenses? (3) Did the program affect the types of offenses of those that offended or reoffended? (4) Of those that offended or reoffended, did the program change the timing of offenses? Of the four effects, almost all of the evaluations provided information on the first effect. Far fewer evaluations reported information on the second effect, and even fewer reported information on the third effect. Almost none of the evaluations reported information on the fourth effect.

The search resulted in the inclusion of 26 studies of drug court programs. The 26 studies included approximately 14,691 adult participants. Three of the studies by Goldkamp (2000) were excluded due to repeated review of cohorts. The group of 26 studies included published and unpublished evaluations that spanned from 1993 to 2000. No information was provided on the age, gender, or racial/ethnic breakdown of the studies’ samples, or on the location of the programs.

The mean difference effect size was calculated for each program. Adjustments were made to the effect sizes for small sample sizes, evaluations of “non-real world” programs, and for the quality of the research design (the quality of each study was rated using the University of Maryland’s five-point scale; only studies that received a rating of ‘3’ or higher on the scale were included in the analysis). Once effect sizes were calculated for each program effect, the individual measures were added together to produce a weighted average effect size for a program or practice area. The inverse variance weight was calculated for each program effect and those weights were used to compute the average. The fixed effects model was used for the analysis.

Meta-Analysis 2

Latimer, Morton-Bourgon, and Chrétein (2006) located 54 individual studies between 1993 and 2005 to determine if drug treatment courts for youth and adults reduce recidivism compared to traditional justice system responses. Similar to Aos and colleagues (2001), to be included in this meta-analysis, studies needed to have (1) examined the effectiveness of a drug treatment court, (2) used a control group that did not experience the drug treatment court, (3) searched for sufficient statistical information to establish an effect size, and (4) measured the impact of the drug treatment court on recidivism rates (Latimer et al., 2006). Age, length of the program, follow-up period, and methodological versus random assignment were identified as variables in the analysis.

Because studies often contained information on more than one program, data from 66 individual drug treatment court programs were aggregated and analyzed. The 66 studies included 17,214 offenders who had successfully completed a drug treatment court program. The comparison group comprised of 14,505 who had not received the intervention. The meta-analysis evaluated mean participant characteristics. Average program size consisted of 260 participants who were 28.4 years old. No information was provided on the gender or racial/ethnic breakdown of the studies’ samples, or on the location of the programs.

The phi coefficient (Pearson’s r product moment correlation applied to dichotomous data) was used as the effect size estimate. Once the effect size estimate from each study was calculated for recidivism, the overall mean effect size estimate, along with the corresponding confidence intervals, and a weight effect size estimate were calculated.

Meta-Analysis 3

Mitchell and colleagues (2012) conducted an extensive search process for studies that (1) evaluated a drug court program (defined as specialized courts for handling drug-involved cases that are processed in a non-adversarial manner, refer offenders to appropriate treatment programs, regularly test offenders for drug use, and have a judge who actively monitors progress and provides sanctions for misbehavior), (2) included a comparison group in the evaluation that was treated in a traditional fashion by the court system, (3) measured criminal behavior (such as arrest or conviction), and (4) provided enough information to compute an odds ratio.

The search process resulted in the inclusion of 154 independent evaluations of drug courts. Of those, 92 assessed adult drug courts, 34 examined juvenile drug courts, and 28 investigated driving while intoxicated (DWI) drug courts. The outcomes reported here are for the 92 evaluations that assessed adult drug courts. The first data set preference was given to effect sizes that were general, based on arrest, dichotomous, and followed sample members for 12 months. For each evaluation contrast, an odds ratio was calculated. Effect sizes were calculated for three outcomes: (1) general recidivism; (2) drug related recidivism); and (3) drug use. The study utilized the effect size. In addition, a standardized mean different effect size was used and transformed to odds ratios. A random-effects model was used.

To control for the rigor of study design, the 154 studies were placed into four possible categories: (1) weak quasi-experiments, (2) standard quasi-experiments, (3) rigorous quasi-experiments, and (4) randomized experiments. Measures were also coded into three dimensions pulled from a study by Longshore and colleagues (2001). They included leverage, population severity, and program intensity.

Meta-Analysis 4

Shaffer (2010) sought to identify characteristics of effective drug courts. The author used meta-analytic techniques to investigate the relationship between six structural and five process dimensions of drug court effectiveness. The six structural dimensions included target population, leverage, service delivery, staff, funding, and quality assurance. The five process dimensions included assessment, philosophy, treatment, predictability, and intensity. The objective was to merge survey data with existing study data to determine the relative influence of each dimension listed above.

Studies of drug court programs using an experimental or quasi-experimental design were searched for in various locations, including databases and government reports (i.e., Academic Press, Criminal Justice Abstracts, and Government Publications Monthly). This search included a comparison group and at least one measure of criminal behavior with a six month follow-up period.

A total of 115 studies were found, but only 60 studies evaluated separate drug courts and were eligible for inclusion. From the 60 outcome evaluations, there were 76 individual samples of drug courts and 6 multi-site evaluations where the results could not be disaggregated. From the eligible studies, there were 61 samples of adult drug courts that contributed to the overall effect size. This included 20,830 individuals contributing to the overall effect size.

Meta-Analysis 5

Drake (2012) conducted a meta-analysis to review the effectiveness of various types of chemical dependency treatment in the adult and juvenile justice systems to determine whether the programs reduce crime and substance abuse. For adults, the different types of treatments included drug treatment during incarceration, drug treatment delivered in the community, case management for substance-abusing offenders, therapeutic communities for offenders with co-occurring disorders, and drug courts. There were four primary methods used to locate studies: (1) bibliographies of systematic and narrative reviews in various topic areas were consulted; (2) citations from the individual studies were examined; (3) independent searches of research databases were conducted; and (4) authors of primary research were contacted. Studies were included if they had a comparison group (random or non-random assignment), contained enough information to calculate an effect size, and had a standardized measure of the primary outcome of interest (crime). A total of 51 evaluation studies of adult drug courts were included in the analysis.

The search process resulted in the inclusion of 51 evaluation studies of adult drug courts. However, some studies represented multiple sites under evaluation. The 51 individual studies represented 67 effect sizes. The standardized mean difference effect size was calculated for each program effect. Once the effect sizes are calculated, the individual measures are summed to produce a weight average effect size for the program area (in this instance, adult drug courts). Adjustments were made to the effect sizes to account for small sample sizes, evaluations of “non-real world” programs, and research design quality (the quality of each study was rated using the University of Maryland’s five-point scale; only studies that received a rating of ‘1’ or higher on the scale were included in the analysis). A random effects model was used to calculate the weighted average effect size.

Meta-Analysis 6

Sevigny, Fuleihan, and Ferdik (2013) conducted a meta-analysis to determine the impact of adult drug courts on overall incarceration. A comprehensive search of the literature was conducted to identify eligible studies. To be eligible for review, studies were required to 1) be experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations of U.S. adult drug court programs, 2) use a comparison group that is subject to routine criminal justice processing such as probation, 3) report incarceration outcomes, and 4) be published in English. All studies also had to be published after 1989, the date the first drug court was established.  

The search process resulted in 229 potentially eligible publications, of which 201 were available for further review.  However, a large majority of these studies did not report incarceration outcomes, leaving only 19 studies that contributed at least one independent effect size related to incarceration outcomes, and only 11 that focused on the overall use of incarceration. Approximately 11.1 percent of the included studies were categorized as randomized experimental, 50 percent as strong quasi-experimental, and 38.9 percent as weak quasi-experimental. The majority of studies were evaluated between 1995–1999 (72.2 percent), with 5.6 percent evaluated between 1990–1994. Approximately 22.2 percent were evaluated in 2000 or later. A logs odds ratio was calculated to examine the impact of drug courts on overall incarceration.

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Drake (2012) calculated the cost of adult drug courts. The analysis revealed that annual program cost was $11,227. The benefit to cost ratio was $1.77 and total benefits yielded $7,391. All dollars were shown in base year 2011 for the analysis.
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Implementation Information

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The drug courts discussed in the current meta-analyses all included a drug court staff that worked together with a judicial staff to ensure service delivery and structure.
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Other Information

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Several meta-analyses included additional tests—called moderator analyses--to see if any factors strengthened the likelihood that adult drug courts improved outcomes. Three moderator analyses assessed the impact of four factors on program effectiveness: program duration, leverage, program intensity, and population severity. Program duration: Two analyses found that the duration of drug court programs had an impact on their effectiveness. Latimer and colleagues (2006) found that drug court programs that provided services for 1 year to 18 months demonstrated a significant reduction in recidivism compared with shorter or longer programs. Similarly, Shaffer (2006) found that drug courts designed to last between 8 and 16 months were significantly more effective than those designed to last less than 8 months or longer than 16 months. Leverage (rewards and sanctions): Two analyses indicated that pre-adjudication models and post-adjudication models work equally for reducing recidivism. Both Mitchell and colleagues (2011) and Shaffer (2006) found that there were no significant differences between drug court programs that used a pre-adjudication model compared to those programs that use a post-adjudication model. Program intensity: The findings on the impact of program intensity are mixed. Mitchell and colleagues found that drug court programs that had more than 2 status hearings a month had a significantly larger effect on drug-related recidivism than other courts (but no significant effect on general recidivism). Shaffer found overall mixed results. While some program requirements (restitution, education, and “other” requirements) were associated with reduced recidivism, other program requirements (community service, fines, and employment) were not. Population severity: Two analyses found that program effects are bigger when programs serve populations with less severe problems. Mitchell and colleagues found that drug court programs that included only non-violent offenders had statistically larger effect sizes on general recidivism measures than programs that included violent offenders (the effect was not significant on drug-related recidivism). Shaffer also found that drug court programs that excluded violent offenders were significantly associated with reductions in recidivism.
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1

Aos, Steve, Polly Phipps, Robert Barnoski, and Roxanne Lieb. 2001. The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime. Olympia, Wash.: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Meta-Analysis 2

Latimer, Jeff, Kelly Morton-Bourgon, and Jo-Anne Chrétien. 2006. A Meta-Analytic Examination of Drug Treatment Courts: Do They Reduce Recidivism? Ottawa, Ontario: Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division.

Meta-Analysis 3

Mitchell, Ojmarrh, David Wilson, Amy Eggers, and Doris MacKenzie. 2012. “Drug Courts’ Effects on Criminal Offending for Juveniles and Adults.” Campbell Collaboration 4.

Meta-Analysis 4

Shaffer, Deborah. 2010. Reconsidering Drug Court Effectiveness: A Meta-analytic Review. Las Vegas, NV: University of Las Vegas Department of Criminal Justice.

Meta-Analysis 5

Drake, Elizabeth. 2012. Chemical Dependency: A Review of the Evidence and Benefit-Cost Findings. Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Meta-Analysis 6

Sevigny, Eric L., Brian K. Fuleihan, and Frank V. Ferdik. 2013. “Do Drug Courts Reduce the Use of Incarceration?: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Criminal Justice 41(6): 416–25.

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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Downey, P Mitchell, and John K. Roman. 2010. A Bayesian Meta-Analysis of Drug Court Cost-Effectiveness. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute.

Longshore, Douglas, Susan W. Turner, Suzanne Wenzel, Andrew Morral, Adele Harrell, Duane McBridge, Elizabeth Deschenes, and Martin Iguchi. 2001. “Drug Courts: A Conceptual Framework.” Journal of Drug Issues 31(1):7–25.

National Association of Drug Court Professionals. 2012. "What are Drug Courts?” Web site, Alexandria, VA (accessed Mar. 20, 2013).

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Related Programs

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Following are programs that are related to this practice:

Brooklyn (NY) Treatment Court No Effects - One study
This drug court program offers substance abuse treatment for nonviolent felony and misdemeanor drug offenders. The program is rated No Effects. There were no statistically significant differences between the drug court participants and the comparison group in 2-year post-program recidivism or 4-year post-arrest convictions for a drug offense.

Baltimore City (Md.) Drug Treatment Court Promising - One study
A court that identifies offenders with substance abuse addiction and offers them a program with treatment rather than incarceration. The program is rated Promising. Participants were significantly less likely to be rearrested and had lower scores of maximum crime seriousness. There was no significant difference between drug court participants and control members with respect to employment, physical and mental health or family and social relationships.

Bronx (NY) Treatment Court Promising - One study
This program is an alternative to probation and confinement for first-time, nonviolent felony drug offenders. The program is rated Promising. Treatment court participants had statistically significant lower conviction rates for any new offenses and drug offenses 1 year after program completion, compared with the comparison group. Program participants also had statistically significant lower conviction rates 3 years following the initial arrest.

Oregon Drug Courts Promising - One study
These statewide drug court programs were designed to provide comprehensive management for drug offenders—through increased treatment, monitoring, and interactions with the court judge—to achieve reductions in reoffending and better drug treatment outcomes for substance users. This program is rated Promising. Individuals who participated in drug court programs had statistically significant reductions in recidivism rates and number of rearrests, compared with the control group.

Queens (NY) Treatment Court Effective - One study
This is a drug court program for first-time, nonviolent felony drug offenders who are arrested in Queens County, N.Y. The court provides drug or alcohol treatment services to persistent drug offenders who have a history of substance abuse. This program is rated Effective. There were statistically significant reductions in postarrest and post-program rearrest rates for program participants, compared with the comparison group.

Suffolk County (NY) Drug Treatment Court Effective - One study
An alternative to incarceration for drug-abusing defendants facing a broad range of charges. The drug court program provides substance abuse treatment and education, as well as case management and intensive supervision. The program is rated Effective. The treatment court reduced recidivism rates following arrest up to 3 years. For postprogram recidivism, the study found the comparison group recidivated at 32 percent compared to 23 percent of the drug court participants.

Multnomah County (Ore.) Sanction Treatment Opportunity Progress (STOP) Drug Diversion Program Effective - One study
This is a drug court program that focuses on providing treatment services for offenders facing first-offense drug charges. The program is rated Effective. In addition to showing statistically significant lower rates of subsequent arrests, convictions, felony arrests, drug arrests, and parole and probation violations, program participants had higher scores in positive adjustment, compared with control group participants at the 2-year follow up.

Guam Adult Drug Court Promising - One study
This is a drug court diversion program designed to help participants achieve sobriety and reduce involvement with the criminal justice system, by connecting them with treatment services soon after arrest. The program is rated Promising. The treatment group showed statistically significant reductions in recidivism for general and drug-related crime, compared with the control group at the 3-year follow up. However, there were no differences between groups in rates of positive drug tests.

Adult Treatment Drug Courts (Multi-site) Promising - One study
This is a program that focuses on drug-involved offenders and aims to provide specialized substance abuse treatment services. The program is rated Promising. Participants in the treatment group were statistically significantly less likely to report drug use and criminal activity than participants in the comparison group. However, there was no statistically significant effect on incarceration, socioeconomic status, mental health, family support, or homelessness.

Helping Women Recover Program (in a Drug Court Setting) No Effects - One study
A gender-responsive program designed to treat drug-addicted female offenders in a drug court setting. The program intends to specifically address the needs of female addicts and treat symptoms identified as distinct to female pathways to criminality and drug involvement. This program is rated No Effects. Female offenders assigned to gender-specific treatment did not display any significant differences in number of arrests and reports of drug use than those assigned to mixed-gender treatment.

Ada County (Idaho) Drug Court Promising - More than one study
Provides court-supervised, community-based outpatient drug treatment and case management services to felony drug offenders. The goals are to increase offender accountability, decrease the likelihood of recidivism, and reduce drug dependency. The program is rated Promising. The program was shown to significantly reduce a participant’s likelihood of recidivating.
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Practice Snapshot

Age: 18 - 99

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Other, White

Targeted Population: Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Offenders

Settings: Courts

Practice Type: Alcohol and Drug Therapy/Treatment, Diversion, Drug Court

Unit of Analysis: Persons