Drug Court Results: Positive But Spotty

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Now that nearly 3,000 youths have gone to juvenile drug courts and the U.S. Justice Department has spent more than $16 million over the past three years to expand them, it would be nice to know if they work.

But at the National Juvenile Drug Court Conference in January, researcher Steven Belenko of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse stood to tell an audience, "I have a half page of what we know and one and half pages of what we don't know."

While preliminary data show that the courts are more effective than standard juvenile courts at getting youths to stop using drugs, a U.S. Office of Justice Programs (OJP) report last year ("Juvenile and Family Drug Courts: An Overview") says they haven't been around long enough "to document significant results over the long term."

Here is some of what researchers know. Unless otherwise noted, all findings are from American University, which runs the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project for OJP:

      *Positive drug tests - 18 percent test positive while in drug court programs, compared to 30 percent for those going through juvenile court.

      *Retention - Rates vary widely. At the end of the first year for the court in Raleigh, N.C., 13 of the 30 youths admitted had dropped out. In Phoenix, the retention rate is above 90 percent. In some small programs, retention is 100 percent.

      *Re-arrests - After graduating more than 200 kids, the Salt Lake City, Utah, juvenile drug court found that 26 percent had another court referral within two years after graduating. Among those who hadn't graduated, the rate was 46 percent. Among those who dropped out, the rate was 60 percent.

Preliminary findings from the court in New Mexico's Third Judicial District Court (Las Cruces) for the two years ending last November show that of 37 graduates, 13 were arrested again. No comparisons exists for re-arrest rates for drug-using juveniles who did not go through drug court.

      *School performance - 75 percent show improved academic performance.

      *Family relations - 94 percent of participants report improved relationships.

Long-term longitudinal studies are being set up, but researchers express frustration at trying to find a valid control group against which to measure the progress of graduates.

Belenko, although optimistic, stressed what is yet to be learned: "We don't know if the benefits outweigh the cost. We don't know about the treatment factors associated with positive outcomes. We know very little about the impact of" sanctions and rewards. "We don't know about program impact."