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August 13, 2016

"The Drug Court Paradigm"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Jessica Eaglin now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Drug courts are specialized, problem-oriented diversion programs. Qualifying offenders receive treatment and intense court-supervision from these specialized criminal courts, rather than standard incarceration.  Although a body of scholarship critiques drug courts and recent sentencing reforms, few scholars explore the drug court movement’s influence on recent sentencing policies outside the context of specialized courts.

This Article explores the broader effects of the drug court movement, arguing that it created a particular paradigm that states have adopted to manage overflowing prison populations. This drug court paradigm has proved attractive to politicians and reformers alike because it facilitates sentencing reforms for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders that provide treatment-oriented diversions from incarceration.  Though reforms adopted within the drug court paradigm have contributed to stabilizing prison populations and have created a national platform to discuss mass incarceration, this paradigm has limits that may prevent long-term reductions in prison populations.  This Article identifies three limitations of the drug court paradigm: First, by focusing exclusively on low-level drug offenders, the approach detrimentally narrows analysis of the problem of mass incarceration; second, by presenting a “solution,” it obscures the ways that recent reforms may exacerbate mass incarceration; third, by emphasizing a focus on treatment-oriented reforms, this paradigm aggressively inserts the criminal justice system into the private lives of an expanding mass of citizens.

This Article locates the current frame’s origin in the drug court movement. Identifying this connection is important for two reasons: First, it provides new insight to how we define “success” in criminal justice, and why.  Second, it illuminates a growing tension between government actors and the general public’s appetite for criminal justice reforms that meaningfully reduce mass incarceration.

I am putting this article on my must-read list because the author is 100% right when noting that "few scholars explore the drug court movement’s influence on recent sentencing policies outside the context of specialized courts." Indeed, I have been surprised about how little active discourse about drug courts there has been in recent years in academic and policy circles.

August 13, 2016 at 11:25 AM | Permalink


I would be curious if there actually is a strong public desire to reduce incarceration as such (that is, a desire to reduce prison populations separate from wishing it did not cost so much).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 13, 2016 4:56:27 PM

Right, I feel like the abstract translates to: "Drug courts are great at addressing the people long used as the poster child for 'criminal justice reform' -- drug addicts who might receive lengthy sentences for possession or low-level distribution offenses. But they aren't as useful in advancing the next stage of the ideological struggle towards delegitimizing the very idea of crime, and here's why."

Posted by: Jay | Aug 13, 2016 10:14:06 PM

Well, I think the premise of drug courts is a little different than just the crimes committed by the defendsnts and that is, but for drug addiction, many (petty) crimes would not be committed at all. Certainly, many of those are "non-violent drug crimes," but there are many others as well. The essential failure of the drug war is that it has been a supply-side attack only, with less than zero effort applied on the demand-side, while this is one of the few efforts at a demand-side solution.

Drug courts have been an essential feature of the criminal justice landscape in Texas for decades. They aren't 100% successful because the success rate of drug addiction treatment is abysmal, but for the defendant who is ready, it's a marvelous thing.

Frankly, I fully believe that the drug court approach should be applied to any first offender for any non-violent crime.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 14, 2016 9:36:50 AM


I don't get how you can seriously say that no attempt has been made at the demand side. You read about plenty of folks arrested for simple possession. Or the articles about how minority users are picked up at far higher rates than whites. And as far as I am ware that sort of thing is decades old at this point.

Maybe it's not an _effective_ attempt at curbing demand but punishing folks for using drugs is certainly something.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 14, 2016 11:12:00 AM

When I say demand side I mean actually addressing the demand, by, like, treating and preventing drug addiction. It's a tall order, but 40 plus years of the supply-side drug war has gotten us exactly nowhere.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 14, 2016 11:26:07 AM

This article about the drug court paradigm has proven itself attractive to politicians and reformers alike because it facilitates sentencing reforms for low-level, non-violent drug offenders that provide treatment-oriented diversions from incarceration.

Posted by: David Bjornson | Aug 19, 2016 11:29:50 AM

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