To test the impact of adult drug courts on future criminal behavior and sentence length on the precipitating criminal case; and to examine whether the magnitude of the drug court impact varies based on drug use or criminal history, social ties, mental health, or offender demographics.
Self-reported criminal behavior up to 18 months, official re-arrests up to 24 months, and sentence length on the precipitating case were compared between 1,156 drug court participants from 23 sites and 625 comparison offenders from six sites. Slightly smaller sub-samples were retained for follow-up interviews. (Eighty-three percent were retained at the 18-month follow-up.) A “super weighting” strategy was employed to adjust for selection and attrition bias, and hierarchical modeling was employed to adjust for the clustering of outcomes within sites.
Drug courts reduced criminal behavior, including a reduction by more than half in the number of criminal acts over 18 months. The magnitude of this effect did not significantly vary across most of 17 offender subgroups. Drug courts did not reduce average sentence length on the precipitating case, whereas program graduates faced little or no incarceration, those failing received much longer sentences than the comparison group.
Based on a multi-site design with relatively high external validity as compared with past studies, drug courts appear to reduce future criminal behavior, suggesting that it would be beneficial to expand their reach to more offenders. The discussion addresses key study limitations, including the use of quasi-experimental methods and a follow-up timeframe of less than two years.
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The North Carolina comparison sites were defined as part of the same cluster as the one South Carolina drug court, whose location was virtually on the North Carolina border.
We relied exclusively on NCIC data for our two Georgia sites, since Georgia’s SAC provided incomplete records.
We entered all characteristics as fixed rather than random effects. In other words, our analyses sought to model the average effect of each characteristic across all 29 sites, without examining whether the nature of their impact varies by site. In test random effects models (not shown), we found that of 20 regression parameters, the effect of only three significantly varied by site: drug/crime drug involvement of blood relatives, number of prior criminal acts, and depressed at baseline. Since chance variation could have led one or two of these effects to appear, we did not deem this evidence as sufficient to justify examining some or all of the parameters with a random effects framework.
Drug court status was entered as a Level 2 predictor, the background characteristic as a Level 1 predictor, and the interaction term as a Level 1 predictor. In modeling the interaction term, we sought to measure the average effect of the background characteristic in all sites in moderating the drug court impact. We did not assume or seek to model whether, for example, drug courts might be particularly effective among those with a more serious drug use history in some sites, but this moderating effect might not apply elsewhere. Our assumption seemed reasonable, since the main effect of background characteristics did not vary by site for nearly all characteristics examined (see previous endnote). Thus, the Level 1 and Level 2 equations took the following general form, where the outcome was the number of criminal acts in the year prior to the 18-month interview (modeled with a Poisson specification), X1 is the background characteristic of interest, and X01 is sample status (drug court vs. comparison):
Level 1: Outcome = B0 + B1X1 + B2(X1 × X01);
Level 2: B0 = Y00 + Y01X01 + u0
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Rempel, M., Green, M. & Kralstein, D. The impact of adult drug courts on crime and incarceration: findings from a multi-site quasi-experimental design. J Exp Criminol 8, 165–192 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-012-9143-2
- Drug court
- Substance abuse