NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do Drug Courts Work?

August 5, 2010

Drug courts are judicially supervised programs that provide long-term treatment and other services to nonviolent drug law offenders.  Cases can be referred to drug courts in lieu of or in addition to traditional criminal punishment, such as incarceration or probation. 

For a period lasting a minimum of one year, offenders receive treatment and help readjusting to life outside of prison and without drug use.  Participants are randomly drug tested and regularly appear before a judge to review their progress.  They can be sanctioned or rewarded based on such behavioral criteria as attending meetings, staying drug free and working.  

Many say that drug courts save taxpayers money and are more effective than prison alone.  But is that true, asks Jessica Huseman, an intern with the National Center for Policy Analysis: 

  • According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, cost savings due to drug courts range from $4,000 to more than $12,000 per client.
  • Nationwide, for every dollar invested in drug courts, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone.
  • A 30-month U.S. Department of Justice study of Portland, Oregon's Multnomah County Drug Court, the second oldest in the nation, found that it saved almost $5,000 per participant, on average, totaling more than $1.5 million per year.
  • The net savings included the actual cost of judges, courtrooms and drug tests, avoided trials and jail time, and avoided victimization costs, such as lost work days, medical expenses and so forth.  

Managing an offender through drug court costs more than probation alone, but much less than jail or prison, says Huseman.  According to a statewide evaluation of drug court programs in Kentucky: 

  • In 2004, it cost an average of $1,256 per year for an offender on traditional probation.
  • It cost $3,083 to manage an offender through drug court, including administrative and treatment costs.
  • By contrast, the one year cost of maintaining an offender in jail was $9,676 or $17,194 in prison. 

Given the success of drug courts, and the projected savings if more programs were implemented, the United States should use drug courts to save taxpayers' money and effectively treat criminals with drug problems, says Huseman. 

Source: Jessica Huseman, "Do Drug Courts Work?" National Center for Policy Analysis, Brief Analysis No. 717, August 5, 2010. 

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