More research has been published on the effects of adult Drug Courts than virtually all other criminal justice programs combined. By 2006, the scientific community had concluded beyond a reasonable doubt from advanced statistical procedures called meta-analyses that Drug Courts reduce criminal recidivism, typically measured by fewer re-arrests for new offenses and technical violations. Oregon’s drug courts have also been heavily researched. However, the research used quasi-experimental design or other research methods. No study ever used a randomized controlled trial evaluation, which is considered the “gold standard” in program evaluation. The design greatly mitigates threats to validity such as selection bias and unobserved bias.
Drug courts are designed to guide offenders who are struggling with substance abuse into treatment that will reduce drug dependence and improve their quality of life. In 2008, Ballot Measure 57 required that certain offenders be provided substance abuse treatment services, and the state provided grant funds to Oregon counties to assist in offering post-adjudication services and treatment. Four sites received Measure 57 drug court funding and participated in this drug court evaluation: Douglas County, Jackson County, Multnomah County, and Umatilla County. This research uses a randomized control group to study drug court implementation and outcomes across these sites. All Measure 57 drug court participants must have a Measure 57-eligible offense (felony property or repeat drug delivery offense) and have scored a 3 or higher on the Texas Christian University (TCU) drug screen, deeming them moderate or high risk.
Primary Research Question
The study was organized into four parts: 1) a process evaluation of each of the four participating sites; 2) an interview study designed to obtain participant perceptions of their court experiences through interviews with treatment and control group members; 3) an outcome evaluation based on data from administrative court records, and 4) a cost analysis that examined costs associated with the program and its outcomes.
For the randomized controlled trial design, a total of 283 participants entered the study in time to be eligible to be interviewed. Of these, 172 (61%) had been randomly assigned to the treatment group and 111 (39%) had been randomly assigned to the control group. A total of 84 respondents completed both baseline and follow-up interviews (59 in the treatment group and 25 in the control group).
Regarding the process evaluation, information was collected from online program assessments of each site, staff interviews, observations of team staffing meetings and court sessions, and program documents.
For the outcome evaluation, data was gathered from a number of administrative databases and analyzed using statistical software.
Researchers analyzed the cost-benefit analysis of drug courts using the Transactional and Institutional Cost Analysis methodology.
The sample of participants included in the random assignment study at each site was small and may not have been representative of the participants in the drug court programs overall. This is one of the key limitations of this study, and it may have impacted the outcome findings significantly.
- Researchers examined 52 research-based best practices associated with the 10 Key Components (guidelines for the implementation drug courts) across the sites. Three of the four sites had implemented 44 (85%) of the best practices and one site had implemented 41 (79%) of the best practices. Thus, the sites had implemented drug courts with reasonable fidelity to the drug court model
- Drug court treatment group members were more likely than control group members to: perceive court members working as a team, have participated in a substance use assessment, indicate receiving outpatient group or individual substance use counseling, and to have been drug tested more frequently.
- Control group members were more likely than treatment group to report participating in mental health treatment.
- The drug court program did not impact treatment group members more strongly than traditional court processing affected the control group members in terms of attitudes toward the judge, the certainty of sanctions if they were not compliant with court instructions, substance use in the past 30 days, or reported criminal acts in the past 6 months.
- This evaluation showed a reduction in recidivism when compared to the group of offenders who received traditional probation. For this study, recidivism included any new arrest with a criminal charge for 12 months after randomization. The treatment group had 28% fewer new charges, and 26% fewer new cases (cases can contain multiple charges), than the control group. The treatment group had 37% fewer new charges for drug crimes than the control group.
- The average total program cost per participant was $22,917 (the average cost ranged from $16,273 to $31,918 across sites). The largest average contributor to the cost of the program was outpatient treatment ($12,546). The second largest contributor to program costs was residential treatment ($2,985) followed by jail sanctions ($2,756).
Many of the participants in the study were prison-eligible under Measure 57 and this evaluation provides support for drug courts as an effective alternative to prison. The Measure 57 Intensive Drug Court Program is one strategy within the continuum of services and programs for all offenders involved in the criminal justice system. This program is targeted toward a specific population and a specific point of involvement within the criminal justice system. Other types of offenders, including low risk and/or low need, and those at different points of involvement within the criminal justice system, may be better served with other types of services and programs.