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GAO Report on Drug Courts Criticized by Drug Policy Alliance

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation’s “leading organization promoting alternatives to current drug policy,” often has to wade through murky data to expose the ineffectiveness of the nation’s drug court system. But a recent federal study touting drug court successes only required the DPA to perform some simple math.

A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in December 2011 found that 18 of 32 drug courts or prior drug court research reports surveyed – from Sacramento, California and Kalamazoo, Michigan to Queens, New York and Guam – produced “statistically significant” reductions in recidivism. Of course, if just over half of those drug courts produced statistically significant results, it stands to reason that the rest did not.

“The message here is: enter a drug court at your own risk,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy director of the DPA’s Southern California office. “The chance you’ll enter a drug court that might help you avoid getting arrested again is about 50-50, the equivalent of a coin toss. Clearly, the popularity that drug courts enjoy is not supported by the evidence.”

It’s difficult to extract from the GAO report what is considered “statistically significant.” The report’s footnotes assert that its findings are “statistically significant only if they were significant at the 95%, or greater, level of statistical significance.”

Of the 18 drug courts the GAO report deemed successful, “the percentages of drug court program participants re-arrested were lower than for comparison group members by 6 to 26 percentage points.” Despite the fact that the other 14 drug courts or drug court research reports surveyed did not produce such results, drug courts have their proponents.

Actor Martin Sheen appeared before Congress in April 2011, hoping to convince lawmakers to continue funding the nearly 2,500 drug courts operating in the United States. “Drug courts are the very best deal Congress can make to reduce crime and the social consequences related to drug addiction,” said Sheen, who credits court-mandated drug treatment for helping his son, actor Charlie Sheen. From reading the tabloid news media reports on his very public drug use, domestic violence and other issues, it is difficult to ascertain just how much “help” Charlie actually received beyond simply not going to prison.

The advantages of drug courts over traditional courts “are no longer up for debate,” added Dr. Doug Marlowe, chief of science and law for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “Drug courts reduce crime by up to 45% and have been found to save up to $13,000 for every individual they serve,” Marlowe told Congress. “And we now know that 75 percent of those who complete drug court are never arrested again.”

Those numbers, however, simply don’t square with most objective research, including the GAO report and a National Institute of Justice study released in 2011 – the Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE) – a 5-year examination of 1,157 drug court participants nationwide.

MADCE reported a recidivism rate for drug court participants that was 10% lower than a comparison group of offenders (52% vs. 62%), which the NIJ found to be “not statistically significant.” Or, as the DPA noted, “the decrease may be the result of chance.” MADCE also indicated that drug court participants were significantly less likely than the comparison group to commit crimes and engage in drug use, but those results were self-reported by the participants.

“Drug courts have actually helped to increase, not decrease, the criminal justice entanglement of people who struggle with drugs and have failed to provide quality treatment,” argued DPA’s director of legal affairs, Daniel Abrahamson. “Only sentencing reform and expanded investment in health approaches to drug use will stem the flow of drug arrests and incarceration.”

The DPA and the Justice Policy Institute had previously criticized drug courts in reports released by those organizations in March 2011. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.38].

Sources: GAO Report, “Adult Drug Courts: Studies Show Courts Reduce Recidivism, but DOJ Could Enhance Future Performance Measure Revision Efforts” (GAO-12-53);; Drug Policy Alliance; TIME Magazine

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