A Systematic Review of Drug Court Effects on Recidivism

David B. Wilson, George Mason University
Ojmarrh Mitchell, University of Maryland at College Park
Doris Layton MacKenzie, University of Maryland at College Park

The "get-tough on crime" strategies of the past two decades have inundated the court system, probation offices, jails, and prisons with a significant number of offenders convicted for drug crimes and suffering from drug addiction. Drug courts, first developed in 1989 in Dade County, Florida, have been proposed as a solution to this problem by diverting drug offenders from the traditional court system and its sanctions. Drug courts were designed to use the authority of the judge to increase offender compliance with drug treatment. In most drug courts, the judge closely monitors the progress of the drug offender (generally referred to as a client) and doles out sanctions for drug use relapse, failure to attend treatment, or other drug court infractions. The atmosphere of the drug court is non-adversarial and provides a case management function, connecting drug abusers with appropriate treatment programs. Drug courts have become wildly popular. As of January 2002, there were nearly 800 established or recently implemented drug courts in the United States (Drug Court Clearinghouse, 2002), with over 400 being planned. This popularity may stem in part from the perception that these courts hold drug offenders accountable for their irresponsible behavior (i.e., they are tough) yet at the same time provide drug abusers with access to needed treatment programs. A review of the drug court literature conducted by the General Accounting Office (1997) concluded that the existing evidence was insufficient to draw any firm conclusion on the effectiveness of these programs with respect to recidivism. Belenko (2001) also drew a cautious, albeit positive, conclusion on the impact of drug courts on long-term drug use and criminal offending. Past reviews have not, however, utilized systematic review

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Updated 05/20/2006