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Long term effects of drug court participation: evidence from a 15-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial

Abstract

Objectives

This study compares 15-year recidivism and incarceration outcomes for individuals randomly assigned to Baltimore City’s Drug Treatment Court (BCDTC) or traditional adjudication. Additionally, the study examines the moderating effect of court of assignment.

Methods

This study is based on a randomized controlled trial. Participants include 235 drug-involved offenders with substantial criminal and substance use disorder histories who were adjudicated within Baltimore City’s District and Circuit Courts. Key measures include number of arrests; convictions; person, property, drug, and violation of probation (VOP) charges; and days of incarceration. A measure of exposure time is included to account for time spent free in the community. Negative binomial regression and growth curve models test for group differences on each dependent variable over the 15-year follow-up. Additional models assess whether or not originating court moderates the treatment effect.

Results

Participation in BCDTC resulted in significantly fewer arrests, charges, and convictions across the 15-year follow-up period, including several crime-specific differences. Originating court moderated the effect of participation for convictions, such that treatment participants in the Circuit drug court had significantly better outcomes than those in the District drug court relative to their controls. Participation in BCDTC did not have a significant effect on total days of sentenced incarceration.

Conclusions

Results suggest that drug courts have the potential to lead to sustained, long term effects on criminal offending for individuals with significant criminal history records and chronic substance use histories.

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Notes

  1. For additional detail regarding differences in sentences between District and Circuit drug court participants, see Gottfredson and Exum 2002. For differences in hearings, probation supervision, and service implementation stemming from the initial arrest, see Gottfredson et al. 2006.

  2. See Gottfredson and Exum 2002 for additional detail regarding the program structure and components.

  3. Note that Figure 1 represents a modified version of the CONSORT chart. Data on the number of individuals considered for eligibility and enrollment were not collected. Additionally, the number who discontinued the two interventions is not clear, particularly for the traditional adjudication group. While the vast majority of drug court participants received drug court services, the actual graduation rate was 38% at the time of the 3-year follow-up.

  4. Sub-group comparisons of those randomly assigned to District and Circuit court conditions similarly produced no statistically significant differences on prior offending or demographics.

  5. Substance use history data were collected from probation intake and treatment intake forms. These data were available for 92 treatment and 30 control cases.

  6. These variables did not differ between treatment and control but are included as controls to increase statistical power in the analyses.

  7. No substantive differences in outcomes between the weighted and unweighted analyses were found, so the weighted results are not reported (see Kearley 2017 for complete analyses). Regression models for hypotheses 1, 1a, and 3 were also run with an exposure variable that accounts for each participant’s number of days free in the community across the 15-year follow-up. Only one substantive difference in outcomes between these analyses and the analyses without the exposure variable were found, so the results with the exposure variable are not reported with the exception of instance which is footnoted in the corresponding table (see Kearley 2017 for complete analyses).

  8. In every case, the models produced consistent substantive findings regarding the nature of the relationships between the independent and dependent variables over time.

  9. For total convicted VOP charges, the negative binomial model that includes exposure time is significant (β = −0.50, IRR 0.61, p < .05).

  10. See also Appendix E in the supplementary appendices for mean comparisons by treatment condition, with undetermined sentences calculated as being served both consecutively and concurrently.

  11. The number of arrests for all charges was highest in the first few years of the follow-up period, when many in the drug court were still under some form of supervision. Future analyses will be conducted to examine the trajectory of individual charge types across the follow-up period but it is beyond the scope of the current work.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the National Institute of Justice, Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Grant # 2014-IJ-CX-0009.

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Correspondence to Brook Kearley.

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Kearley, B., Gottfredson, D. Long term effects of drug court participation: evidence from a 15-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial. J Exp Criminol 16, 27–47 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-019-09382-1

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Keywords

  • Criminal justice
  • Drug policy
  • Drug treatment
  • Drug treatment court
  • Long-term follow-up
  • Randomized controlled trial