Adele Harrell, an analyst with the Justice Policy Center at the centrist Urban Institute, which sponsored Tuesday's meeting, said that these alternatives to the traditional regime of sentencing and incarceration for drug offenders and criminals with drug problems have proven to be an effective way to move people away from a life of crime.
"What we have learned is that across the board, the participants (in these programs) are less likely to be rearrested," Harrell said.
These alternative programs, which have evolved over the last decade, have received some acclaim, but there remains a good deal of debate about their overall effectiveness due to a lack of data on the impact of the approximately 950 such programs nationwide.
Although the drug court approach differs widely in its application in local courts across the country, there are three components common to all such programs. These include an early assessment of defendants' treatment needs and early placement of defendants in treatment programs; tough drug testing; and the swift and consistent application of penalties for failure to pass drug tests or continue court-ordered treatment.
Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the data about the impact of these programs remains inconclusive.
"Their effectiveness is very much a matter of dispute among social scientists," Lynch told United Press International.
Lynch and other critics of drug courts usually cite two major objections. They say that such alternative courts do not provide harsh enough penalties for criminals, and that court-imposed drug treatment amounts to an unfair, and often ineffective, coercion of the defendant. Lynch said that although the prospect of jail time would keep some people in line, drug treatment under such conditions is not likely to be effective for many other offenders.
Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said it is important to understand that a person does not have to choose to get clean for drug treatment to be effective.
"In contrast to popular belief, you don't have to want treatment," said Leshner. "The database shows that if you increase legal pressures, it does increase the probability that people will stay in treatment, increasing the probability that they will not relapse."
Harrell and other proponents of drug courts say the limited meta-analysis of the local programs around the country prove that if they are run properly, such they have a positive impact on crime. Studies of programs in cities like Baltimore. Md., and Brooklyn, N.Y., have found that they decreased recidivism rates among participants.
For instance, Harrell said the Brooklyn diversion program cut court from 58 percent to 43 percent the likelihood of the rearrest within two years of a person who went through the drug courts. Another study of 2,000 drug court graduates from around the country found that only 27 percent were rearrested in two years. At the eight-year mark, 40 percent were rearrested. This is compared to a rate of 46 percent rate among those who went through the typical judicial sentencing system at the same time.
David Murray, special assistant to the director at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the Bush White House fully supports drug courts but that more data is needed before their use can be expanded nationwide.
"They have played a powerful role (in the fight against illegal drugs)," said Murray. "We don't have conclusive data yet, but indications are that they work. What we are really hoping for is better nationwide data on how drug courts operate."
The National Institute of Justice, the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Justice is in the early stages of developing a study exploring the effectiveness of drug courts, but the results will not be available for several years.
"Appropriate drug treatments for appropriate offenders is going to make our systems safer," Sarah Hart, the director of the agency, said at the forum. "We certainly have a lot of information about public safety returns and crime reduction benefits from this."
Harrell said that although the processing of a single case in a drug courts costs about $4,000 more than one in a traditional court, the typical drug court has been found to return $3 worth of crime prevention for every dollar spent upfront.
Nevertheless, Hart said the existing data is insufficient to warrant expanding drug courts from the limited number of local programs -- which process an average of only 200 to 300 cases per year -- to a national scale. This will take a remarkable commitment of federal, state and local dollars that would be hard to come by in this era of shrinking budgets.
Despite his criticism of drug courts, Lynch said that he sees such programs as having staying power because they provide other options beyond the more traditional methods of fighting drug use in the United States.
"The traditional methods of trying to interdict (drugs) and arrest people and put them in prison have really become more unwelcome by the public," said Lynch. "(Drug courts are) basically more of a political solution to where we are right now in the failing drug war. People are latching onto drug courts and coercive treatment programs as the latest new thing that will help address the problem."