The success of drug courts should be questioned, argues new book from LSE

This book is intended for countries examining the adoption and expansion of the drug court model
- Dr John Collins
court dock 560 747

Drug courts, or Drug Treatment Courts, while often politically popular, have shown generally limited and problematic outcomes in various national case studies according to a new book from the International Drug Policy Unit (IDPU) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Rethinking Drug Courts: International Experiences of a US Policy Export, released today (15 February), reviews the use and efficacy of drug courts in a number of countries worldwide including the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil. 

The authors find that, on the whole, the courts are not as effective as is often suggested and rarely address the underlying social issues impacting drug involved offenders or the services needed to improve client outcomes. The authors also question the suitability of locating state responses to a health issue within the criminal justice system.

In the US for example, where the courts originated, the authors find they have had no measurable impact on levels of incarceration, are exceptionally costly to run and exclude a broad section of drug-involved individuals from eligibility.

In the UK and Ireland, despite strong political support, the authors find the courts have been ultimately unsuccessful. They suggest this is partially due to the transplantation of the US model on a very different institutional, social and cultural situation in the UK and Ireland. The authors point to the frequent refrain of adapting the drug court model to local circumstances and infrastructure, but find little evidence of this occurring or actually mitigating the institutional barriers to their development.

One country where drugs courts have been relatively more successful is Australia where they are used as part of a wider response to drug related offending and are usually only used as a last resort in a long line of potential diversionary responses.

While the authors recognise drug courts can work in certain circumstances, they warn against them being seen as a ‘silver bullet’ and recommend a broader focus on a variety of systemic approaches to diverting drug involved individuals away from the criminal justice system.

Commenting, Dr John Collins, Executive Director of the IDPU at LSE and co-editor and co-author of Rethinking Drug Courts: International Experiences of a US Policy Export said: “This book is intended for countries examining the adoption and expansion of the drug court model. It challenges policy audiences to think critically about the adaptability of the model to differing international contexts as well as the policy goals around establishing drug courts and whether these interventions represent the optimal use of resources based on experiences elsewhere.

“In particular, this book suggests that key issues of availability of wrap around services and the suitability of locating what is fundamentally a health issue within the criminal justice system should give pause to the often “well meaning” and enthusiastic drive to adopt the courts in some countries. This is only magnified in jurisdictions where scarce resources may be better directed towards public health interventions and legislation targeted at diverting drug involved individuals away from the criminal justice system.”

Behind the article

Rethinking Drug Courts: International Experiences of a US Policy Export, is edited by John Collins, Winifred Agnew-Pauley and Alexander Soderholm of IDPU. The volume includes contributions from Joanne Csete (Columbia Mailman School of Public Health), Caitlin Hughes and Marian Shanahan (University of New South Wales), and Luiz Guilherme Mendes de Paiva (IDPU Research Associate).

The research is endorsed by leading international figures including:

 Rt Hon Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme:

"Drug policies based on public health approaches are globally recognized as effective and cost-efficient for drug use management. Evidence-based and people-centered health interventions concerned with the rights to health and to benefit from scientific progress need to take precedence in dealing with people who use drugs. This book is an important resource in these debates, providing a critical reading of the evidence on drug courts, whilst fostering new analyses and evidence on service provision for people who use drugs."

 President Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico and Director, Yale Centre for the Study of Globalization:

"We know that the war on drugs has failed. The question is, what comes next? Too often drug courts are proposed as a one-size fits all solution, regardless of local circumstances and needs and essentially forgetting that prohibition is at the root of most of the problems caused by the consumption and illegal possession of psychotropic substances. This book represents a timely and thorough volume that asks important questions and provides key insights as jurisdictions examine new policy approaches."

Professor Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers:

"Any criminal justice intervention must be evaluated in terms of its potential societal impacts and its human rights risks. Drug courts are often sold as an intervention promising striking and positive results, particularly in Latin America. Meanwhile, we know the evidence is more nuanced and equivocal, with significant potential downside risk in terms of human rights concerns and potential for abuses in contexts lacking sufficient oversight. This book is an important companion for any policy discussions on the implementation of drug courts globally."

Rethinking Drug Courts is available to purchase online from: