Rehabilitation and Recidivism: Drug Courts in New York City

Evaluating the Efficacy of New York City Drug Court Treatment Programs

Reviewed by Partha Sharma
November 3, 2014

New York State has implemented reforms to its infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, remnants of the early stages of the War on Drugs that created harsh, punitive repercussions for drug possession. Shivani Mantha explores one of these reforms, namely the creation of the Drug Court Initiative, which aims to minimize the number of drug-users entering the criminal justice system through providing treatment alternatives. Mantha argues, however, that through using punitive sanctions to promote abstinence, the Drug Courts may impede the treatment of the severely addicted. Furthermore, the punitive sanctions often replicate the punishments of the criminal justice system, leading one to question whether the Drug Court is truly a means to minimize drug-user entry into the system.

The New York City Drug Courts, as Mantha outlines, use a series of graduated sanctions against participants who fail to comply with the Drug Courts’ program. Notably, these include incarceration for short periods of time. Mantha describes the treatment and punitive deterrents that courts use as a “conflation of the disease and rational actor models of addiction.” While the Drug Courts recognize addiction as a disease requiring medical treatment, they also assume that addicts will react in a “rational” manner to undesirable, punitive outcomes and adopt “pro-social” behavior.

However, in the case of more severely addicted individuals, this approach may fail, as the intensity of the addiction may prevent the making of such “rational” choices. Of particular concern is the fact that the sanctions temporarily halt the treatment of drug-users as punishment for relapses, rather than intensifying treatment. Furthermore, most Drug Courts require abstinence of all participants, and do not provide “medically assisted withdrawal programs” that would allow for the substitution of highly addictive drugs with substances like methadone. Mantha argues that medically assisted withdrawal programs must be implemented more widely.

Interestingly, the rational actor model does work well in a comparison of the efficacy of Drug Courts for those individuals charged with misdemeanors and those charged with felonies. Three years after graduation from Drug Courts, felony defendants exhibit lower recidivism rates than those felony defendants who were not placed in this alternative, while no such statistically significant difference exists among misdemeanor defendants. This is explained by the fact that the Drug Courts’ program length for misdemeanor defendants is similar to (or longer than) that of the sentence they would face in the traditional criminal justice system. However, for felony defendants, the length of the Drug Courts’ program is shorter than that of the traditional criminal justice system’s felony sentences. For this reason, Mantha argues that Drug Courts should encourage the entrance of felony defendants in their programs.

Mantha concludes that the Drug Courts may defeat the overall purpose for which they were intended. By incarcerating participants as punishment for relapses, the Drug Courts’ do not necessarily serve the purpose of lowering the number of drug-users in the criminal justice system, because they replicate the punishments of the criminal justice system. The New York City Drug Courts have resulted in reduced recidivism rates in felony defendants relative to the traditional criminal justice system, yet no studies have compared the efficacy of the Drug Courts to treatment programs that do not involve sanctions. Research in this direction could effectively demonstrate, as Mantha argues, the need to eliminate punitive sanctions from the Drug Courts.

View the full paper here!

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