Drug Courts

Overview of Growth, Characteristics, and Results Gao ID: GGD-97-106 July 31, 1997

Since the 1980s, drug cases have been overwhelming judicial dockets. To cope with the deluge of drug cases and the cycle of criminal recidivism common among drug offenders, some state and local jurisdictions have been establishing drug courts--special judicial proceedings generally used for nonviolent drug offenders that feature supervised treatment and periodic drug testing. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorizes the award of federal grants for drug court programs that include court-supervised drug treatment. This report discusses the (1) universe of and funding for drug court programs; (2) approaches, characteristics, and completion and retention rate of existing programs; (3) extent to which program and participant data are maintained and used to manage and evaluate drug court programs; and (4) conclusions that can be drawn from published and unpublished evaluations of the impact of drug court programs.

GAO noted that: (1) there has been a substantial increase in the number of drug court programs started in the United States and the availability of federal funding to support such programs; (2) between 1989 and 1994, 42 drug court programs were started; (3) since 1994, the total number of operating drug court programs had grown to 161 as of March 31, 1997; (4) the number of drug court programs in various developmental stages as of the same date indicates that the number of operating programs will likely continue to grow; (5) over $125 million has been made available for the planning, implementation, enhancement, or evaluation studies of drug court programs from a variety of funding sources since 1989; (6) federal funding, which has increased substantially since 1993, has provided over $80 million of the total; (7) over 95 percent of the federal funding has been provided through federal grants administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); (8) state and local governments, private donations, and fees collected from program participants have provided about $45 million; (9) some programs reported that they deferred prosecuting offenders who entered the program, some allowed offenders to enter the program after their case had been adjudicated, and others allowed offenders to enter their program on a trial basis after entering a plea; (10) with the exception of follow-up data on program participants after leaving the program, most drug court programs surveyed by GAO reported that they maintained various types of data on program participants as suggested by DOJ in its guidance to jurisdictions applying for federal grants under: (a) Title V of the Violent Crime Act; (b) the HHS Center For Substance Abuse and Treatment in its drug court treatment guidelines; and (c) the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Standards Committee, which develops standards and provides guidance to drug court programs, in its drug court program guide; (11) GAO, for several reasons, could not draw any firm conclusions on the overall impact of drug court programs or on certain specific issues raised by Congress about the programs or their participants; (12) DOJ, in conjunction with various stakeholders in the drug court community, has initiated an impact evaluation, to be completed in 1999, of four of the oldest drug court programs; and (13) this evaluation is designed to address some of the factors associated with existing studies that prevented GAO from reaching firm conclusions.


Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

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