RD40 - Annual Report on the Evaluation of Virginia's Drug Treatment Court Programs

Executive Summary:
The Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) was awarded a U.S. Department of Justice Grant (# 2002-DC-BX-0034) to conduct comprehensive statewide evaluations of Virginia’s drug court programs. When the grant was awarded in 2002, there were fourteen drug treatment court programs in Virginia. Twelve additional drug treatment court programs have been implemented since that time. Of the current twenty-six operational drug treatment court programs, thirteen are Circuit Court (adult felony) programs, two adult misdemeanor (DUI and misdemeanor drug) drug courts, eight juvenile drug court programs, and three family drug court programs.

This report presents the results of two evaluation efforts: (1) a process evaluation reporting myriad facts about program policies and procedures and descriptions of Virginia’s adult, juvenile, and family drug court participants, and (2) an outcome evaluation reporting drug court participant retention rates and graduate and non-graduate (terminated or withdrawn participants) recidivism rates. Also included in the outcome evaluation is an analysis of the severity and chronicity of offenses committed by participants prior to their drug court admittance. Severity and chronicity assessments were conducted to examine whether drug courts accept only “light weight” offenders or more serious and chronic offenders.

In the coming year, five other evaluations are planned to give additional information about Virginia’s drug court programs: (1) a quasi-experimental impact study comparing drug court results with the outcomes of drug offenders in matched control groups; (2) qualitative staff and participant assessments of operational drug court programs; (3) a Delphi study of treatment components of Virginia’s drug court programs; (4) a cost assessment study; and (5) a summative analysis of participant variables related to successful drug court outcomes.

Each type of drug addiction (alcoholism, crack addiction, narcotics addition, etc.) has different treatment protocols and different rates of success. In addition to differences in treatment needs, participant profiles vary between Virginia’s drug court programs. For example, a post-dispositional program may accept only probation violators who have exhausted other sentencing alternatives and are facing lengthy incarceration. A pre-dispositional drug court may catch addicts earlier in their criminal history. Another drug court may accept homeless people or those with mental illness as well as addiction. Because of the wide variability in participant populations among Virginia’s drug courts, the reader is urged to resist comparing one drug court program with another. Rather than compare programs, it is important to ask the “big picture” questions: (1) do drug courts reduce subsequent drug-fueled crime overall?; (2) what is the longevity of program impact on sobriety and criminal offending?; (3) which program elements increase program success measures of increased retention and reduced recidivism?; and, (4) which participant profiles are most amenable to success in drug treatment courts?

Virginia drug court programs require offenders to plead guilty prior to drug court admittance. Some drug court programs are primarily pre-dispositional (facts are found sufficient for conviction, adjudication is deferred pending program outcome, and, with program graduation, admitting charges may be reduced or dismissed) while other programs are primarily post-dispositional (participant is found guilty, sentenced, and drug court success may earn reduction or dismissal of sentence). Newer drug court programs tend to follow the post-dispositional model. Of the operational adult drug court programs, two are pre-dispositional, six are post-dispositional, and seven are a combination of the pre-dispositional and post-dispositional models.

Of the 3216 Virginians admitted to adult felony drug court programs between November 1995 and December 2004, a total of 2002 have graduated or are currently enrolled in the programs. The resulting retention rate is 62.25%. Juvenile drug courts have admitted 371 youths. Of this total, 217 have graduated or are currently enrolled resulting in a retention rate of 58.49%. An additional 66 addicted parents have been admitted to Virginia’s family drug treatment court programs. Twenty-seven have graduated or are currently enrolled for a retention rate of 40.9%. Retention is an important benefit of drug court programs. Lower recidivism rates correlate with longer periods of drug treatment. Drug court participants stay in treatment longer and have higher program completion rates than other criminal justice-involved addicts who voluntarily enter substance abuse treatment. Virginia drug court participants stay a minimum of twelve months in judicially-supervised treatment programs. Research indicates that addicts who stay in treatment over a year have twice the recovery rates as those who fail to stay in treatment at least a year.

National studies indicate that recidivism rates of drug court graduates are half or less than half the recidivism rates of other addicted offenders not participating in drug courts. The 2004 Virginia drug court impact study included 2,056 adult drug court participants. Of these, 647 participants have graduated from a drug court program. Of the total number of graduates, 103 have been arrested for felony offenses after drug court graduation. This represents a statewide felony recidivism rate of 15.9% for adult drug court graduates. There were 59 drug court graduates who had misdemeanor arrests resulting in a misdemeanor recidivism rate of 9.1%. Recidivism rates of drug court non-graduates were also examined. Non-graduates include former drug court participants who withdrew or were involuntarily terminated from drug court programs. Of the total sample of 2,056, 918 former participants are drug court non-graduates. Of these, 303 were arrested for felony offenses after leaving drug court. This results in a felony recidivism rate for non-graduates of 33.0%. There were 72 non-graduates who were arrested for subsequent misdemeanor offenses. This represents a 7.8% misdemeanor recidivism rate for non-graduates. It is apparent that adult drug court graduates have significantly lower felony recidivism than non-graduates.

As previously mentioned, the Office of the Executive Secretary plans to conduct a quasi-experimental impact study that will compare the outcomes of drug court participants with matched control groups of drug offenders in localities that do not have drug court programs. Until the planned quasi-experimental study is completed, the recidivism “measuring stick” is a study conducted by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (VCSC) in 1999. The VCSC study concluded that Virginia adult drug offenders treated in traditional ways of incarceration or probation had a 50% felony recidivism rate. The felony recidivism rate for drug court graduates (15.6%) is significantly lower than the felony recidivism rate of drug offenders examined in the VCSC study. Even the felony recidivism rate of drug court non-graduates (33.0%) is significantly lower than the VCSC sample. This may indicate that drug court programs have a positive impact on subsequent recidivism of drug offenders who spend some time in the programs whether they graduate or not.

The impact study of juvenile drug court participants sampled a population of 325 juveniles. The average statewide recidivism rates of juvenile drug court graduates is 12.6% (felony recidivism) and 12.6% (misdemeanor recidivism). The average statewide recidivism rates of juvenile non-graduates (those who withdrew or were expelled from the programs) is 26.9% felony recidivism and 11.9% misdemeanor recidivism. As found with the adult drug court population, there is a decided advantage in terms of lower recidivism for juvenile drug court participants if they complete the treatment program and graduate.

While national and state drug court recidivism studies indicate reduced recidivism for graduates, some believe these positive findings may be attributable to “skimming off the top” (selecting light weight offenders who would be unlikely to re-offend regardless of drug court placement or traditional probation/incarceration placement). To determine whether Virginia’s adult drug court participants were “lightweights”, their arrest records prior to drug court attendance were analyzed. Results of this analysis indicate that drug court participants have extensive arrest records. Drug court participants have a total of 11,435 misdemeanor arrests and 13,972 felony arrests prior to entering Virginia’s drug court programs. The average number of felony arrests per adult drug court participant is 6.8 with an additional 5.6 average misdemeanor arrests prior to drug court admittance.

An additional analysis of the severity level of arrests prior to drug court admittance indicated an average severity weight of 50.38. Severity ratings, based on the offense severity study conducted by Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, were assigned to each of 26,681 arrest charges in the criminal records of drug court participants. The range of severity ratings was between approximately 4 and 738. As an example, drunk in public is at the lower end of the ratings with a score of 4 and first degree, non-capital murder is at the top of the scale at 738. Scores similar to the average drug court participant scores include the following: obtain drugs by fraud (52); possession of schedule 1 or schedule 2 drugs (47); prostitution (45); and bad checks over $200 (41). The average severity weights of participants per program ranges between 43.39 to 56.20 indicating a consistent and narrow range of severity ratings between different drug court programs in Virginia. It appears that Virginia localities are correctly targeting the population (non-violent, drug offenders) intended to participate in drug court programs and are excluding serious violent offenders. Offense severity weights in the 40+ range are commonly assigned to felony-level rather than misdemeanor-level offenses. In conclusion, the severity and chronicity assessments of prior offense records indicate the drug court participants’ have multiple misdemeanor and felony offenses, an average severity rating common for felony drug offenders, and consistent ratings across local programs indicating that drug courts are accepting their intended target population of non-violent drug offenders.