USA Today discovers drug courts today, with a good overview and stories of successes. Overall, I support special courts, but we have to do so with qualifications. Their quality and success vary with the people and procedures they use, like anything else. There isn’t a uniform “drug court” out there. Another thing is that drug court success tends to get publicized the same way “faith-based” program success does, looking at recidivism rates of completers compared to the general prison population or a difficult-to-match-precisely control group. That’s not invalid, but it’s incomplete. It says nothing about noncompleters (who tend to have higher recid rates than either group), as indeed the drug court spokesperson in this article fails to note. It also says nothing about other alternatives than the general prison population. If other alternative programming does as well, then drug courts lose their special standing.
The last problem with this story is the old “TIME sounds really good until you read something you know about” problem. The citation of offenders diverted from prison in OK in the story is highly questionable, has been questioned (appears many drug courts have been sticking with low risk offenders to guarantee more success and thus claiming people who wouldn’t have actually gone to prison or done as much time there), was done by the drug court folks as they sought more funding, not independent evaluators, and comes just as an independent audit of the OK drug courts, rumor has it, is going to rip them up for their poor actual success rate. Again, I support drug courts, especially the OK ones, despite their correctable problems. But you have to be very wary of these news reports. The halo for the courts isn’t near as big or as shiny as these stories would have you believe.