Let's Face it: Drug Courts Don't Work

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The Drug Policy Alliance has a new paper that characterizes drug courts as a failure and advocates abandoning them for all but the most serious cases.

I often disagree with the DPA, but this time I feel a little disappointed.

Basically, they poke holes in the arguments that drug courts are an effective alternative to incarceration and make the argument that drug courts are no better or worse than conventional criminal justice approaches.

They poke holes by pointing to the inconclusive nature of a lot of research frequently cited by drug court supporters. This is fair, but, of course, their challenges are also pretty equivocal. Further, they complain that the outcome measures are abstinence focused. This may be a perfectly legitimate criticism of outcome measures, but it kind of undermines the argument that drug courts are not effective—if we lower the bar to include reduced drug use, the outcomes will look better, no?

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What disappointed me that the argument that they are no better or worse than conventional approaches. This is hard to swallow and they didn’t make the case, leaving one to assume that this conclusion is based on their point of view rather than evidence. (That is ok with me. I can respectfully discuss a point of view if the person acknowledges and is prepared to discuss the values that inform their point of view.

The problem is that they frequently present themselves as being guided only by evidence.) My perspective of drug courts is limited to what I’ve seen in my region and clearly, some are better than others and, maybe in some communities, they’ve made the situation worse.  However, the drug/sobriety court in Ann Arbor works. I have no doubt that it results in far fewer days of incarceration overall and significant improvements in quality of life for most participants.

There were some recommendations for improvement and an acknowledgement that Prop 36 in California was an improvement, but, unless you want to talk about legalization, it’s sweeping “findings” didn’t exactly feel like a conversation starter.