Drug courts need intervention, says legal expert

Evidence about the effectiveness of the courts is limited

“Proponents claim drug courts are an effective alternative to incarceration and work to curb recidivism, reduce costs and even save lives, but it is not at all clear whether any of these things are true,” says Mae Quinn, JD, problem-solving courts expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “In their zeal to solve problems plaguing our communities, today’s court reformers often overlook important concerns of individual defendants — including their rights to due process of law and zealous representation.”

The drug treatment court movement in the United States is part of a widespread effort to use criminal courts to solve difficult societal problems. When the Miami Drug Treatment Court opened its doors in 1989, it garnered tremendous attention because of its innovative approach to drug crime.


“Supporters, including the federal government and drug court judges, quickly lined up behind this exciting new court model,” says Quinn, who practiced in the Bronx Treatment Court. “As a result of their advocacy efforts, there are more than 2,300 drug treatment courts in the United States today, with more on their way.”

Recent estimates suggest that between one-third and one-half of all defendants actually fail out of drug court.

“In a drug court in which I practiced, defendants who failed out usually received an indeterminate prison sentence that was twice as long — two to six years versus one to three years — as similarly situated nondrug court defendants,” Quinn says. “Not only is it misleading to suggest that such courts serve as an alternative to incarceration, but that they save money using fewer prison beds.”

According to Quinn, much of what happens in drug courts — in the name of teamwork and therapeutic outcomes — takes place without meaningful notice to defendants, an opportunity to be heard, or representation.

“Using a carrot and stick approach to encourage treatment compliance, the judge became an active participant in defendant rehabilitation, and prosecutors and defense attorneys shed their adversarial roles to become part of the defendant’s treatment team,” she says.

“Staffings, where court staff discusses defendants’ progress in treatment and possible jail sanctions, are often held behind closed doors,” Quinn says. “Subsequent review hearings, where jail or other sanctions might be visited upon defendants who are allegedly faltering in treatment, frequently occur without defense counsel presence or advocacy.”

Quinn, co-director of the Civil Justice Clinic at Washington University, says that adequate data on the effectiveness of drug courts is not available.

“While the Department of Justice was busily funding these courts, the General Accounting Office (GAO) was issuing reports questioning their efficacy,” she says. “Of the 117 drug court evaluations that had been completed by 2005, in part with federal dollars, the GAO found that only 27 were methodologically sound. And even within this sampling, ‘evidence about the effectiveness of drug court programs in reducing participants’ substance abuse’ was ‘limited and mixed.’”

Last year, President Barack Obama pledged a significant amount of federal aid to support drug courts in 2010.

“The Obama administration should engage in greater oversight of federally funded drug courts to make sure these ongoing experiments actually do what they say they do,” Quinn says.

“Such oversight should not be limited to therapeutic and economic considerations,” she says. “Rather, in determining whether drugs courts really ‘work’ in this country, time should be spent evaluating whether their teamwork approaches comply with the rule of law and respect the constitutional and other rights of those who pass through their doors.”