The economic and other societal consequences of harmful substance use are well documented. Untreated substance-use disorders generate costs to the individual, health systems, and taxpayers. The link between substance use and criminal behavior is well researched and the fiscal impact on the criminal justice system is profound. In Oregon (and in many other states), the costs of drug arrests have put a financial burden on the state’s trial courts. One of the efforts to address these issues has been through drug court programs. Drug courts are a proven and effective way to increase substance abuse treatment retention rates; and drug courts have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism. However, drug court programs can require a large monetary investment. Oregon operates dozens of drug court programs, but very few comprehensive studies have been conducted on individual courts or on a statewide basis to determine the costs and benefits of these programs. Policymakers and program administrators need this information if they are to make informed decisions concerning the allocation of funds and the best ways for these innovative programs to meet Oregon’s needs.
Primary Research Question
Are adult drug courts in Oregon cost-beneficial? Which practices in Oregon’s drug courts are related to better program outcomes—i.e., higher graduation rates, lower recidivism, and greater savings for taxpayers?
To determine whether Oregon’s drug court programs were cost-beneficial, researchers gathered information about both program and recidivism-related costs. To calculate recidivism-related costs, they performed a recidivism study with a comparison group, to determine the relative benefits of drug court as compared to traditional court processes. The study defined recidivism as any new arrest (not conviction) that occurs after the date of entry into drug court.
The recidivism study used a quasi-experimental design with a cohort of all drug court participants who entered programs during a specified period and a matched comparison sample of individuals who were arrested for similar drug court–eligible charges who did not participate in drug court. The study matched drug court participants and comparison individuals by county on age, gender, ethnicity, prior drug charges, prior property charges, and prior person or violence charges.
To determine the best practices in Oregon’s drug courts, a process analysis was conducted on the drug courts included in the study. For this analysis, an online survey of each adult drug court that participated in the study assessed characteristics of drug courts that NPC has assessed in prior evaluations.
The cost findings in this report indicate that drug court is beneficial to participants and Oregon taxpayers. Given an investment of $16,411 per person, after five years the net taxpayer savings for just the cohorts included in the study at 21 drug court sites was nearly $120 million.
Results of the best practices study showed 38 promising practices that were related to higher graduation rates, lower recidivism, and lower recidivism-related costs. These best practices included: including participation by law enforcement, a prosecutor, and defense attorneys on the drug court team; accepting participants with non-drug charges; using a standardized assessment to determine eligibility for the program; allowing participants with drug trafficking charges; providing wrap-around services such as health and dental care; imposing sanctions immediately after the non-compliant behavior; requiring participants to attend drug court sessions once every two weeks; providing training for the judge from prior judge court judges; and monitoring the drug court data.
The study demonstrated that drug court programs produce significant taxpayer savings. This suggests that rather than creating new options for incarcerating more Oregon residents, the best use of state funds for people with drug-related charges is to fund drug court programs that will reduce the need for incarceration. The state’s drug court programs have been extensively studied and have shown consistent decreases in recidivism and substantial cost savings because the programs help turn offenders into contributing citizens.