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Drug Courts and Recidivism: The Effectiveness and Challenges


Drug Courts: Rempel (2005) suggested that such programs reduce recidivism by only 13 percent, which raises the question of whether Drug Court programs really are effective. Another question that arises is whether you measure “success” in the short term, or, in terms of the individual’s lifetime. A 13 percent reduction in recidivism in one year may not be cost-effective for that community. Over the course ten years, a reduction in recidivism by 13 percent might be quite cost effective. But what we mean by “recidivism” can also vary. Does that mean any offenses, or, just drug-related offenses? If a person is arrested for burglary two years after completing the Drug Court program, but has not used alcohol or illicit drugs in that time, is this a success for the Drug Court, or a failure?

Imagine a hypothetical case in which a person was charged with and convicted for trafficking in cocaine. This is the person’s first criminal offense. When considering whether this person would be an appropriate candidate for a Drug Court, remember that drug sales is quite different from drug abuse. It has not been established that this individual has an SUD; he or she is simply involved with the transport and sale of a controlled substance (cocaine). If this hypothetical person were to engage in this activity to support a cocaine addiction, then there would certainly be a case for referring this individual to a Drug Court.


1. Should the above individual be referred to a Drug Court? Why or why not?

2.If, in this case, the individual was carrying 6 grams of cocaine, would this be different than if he or she were to be found to have 60 grams of cocaine? Cocaine wrecks terrible havoc on the abuser, and 60 grams implies that this individual has the cocaine on their person to transport and sell some of it to others.  How much cocaine would a person need to have in his or her possession before exclusion from a Drug Court program is automatic?

3. Does the situation change if the person were also to have been found to have a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol at the time of their arrest? This is a deadly weapon. Drug dealers often are shot by their rivals. Would carrying a firearm for self-defense be sufficient to exclude the individual from Drug Court? Remember that the suspect has not been convicted of any violent crimes. But the firearm is being carried to defend the individual during the commission of an illegal act. At what point does a potential act of violence become grounds to exclude a person from the Drug Court?

4. Working with such a population, 50 percent of whom will go on to re-offend in the future, a 13 percent reduction would mean that only 37 percent of those convicted for one crime would go on to commit additional offenses in the future. Drug Court programs are both labor and time intensive. Is this 13 percent reduction sufficient to warrant the expense of setting up a Drug Court program for that community?

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