Yesterday, the provincial government announced that Red Deer would join Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge in getting a drug treatment court.
When people convicted of a non-violent drug-related offence attend a drug treatment court, they receive the option to enter the conventional incarceration system or undergo a treatment programme. The latter includes judicial supervision, drug abuse treatment, frequent drug testing, incentives, sanctions, and social services support.
The first drug treatment court in Alberta started in 2005. Both Calgary and Edmonton have had drug treatment courts for years, and the provincial government announced this past March that Lethbridge would be getting one.
Red Deer’s drug treatment court, as well as Lethbridge’s, is set to begin in 2021.
While some governments see drug treatment courts as an attractive solution for addressing drug crime, citing reduced recidivism, their effectiveness is controversial.
For example, a 2012 study published in Justice Research and Policy claimed that three meta-analyses found that drug treatment courts reduced recidivism by no more than 13%. A 2005 study reported a 7.5% reduction, a 2006 study a 12.5% reduction, and another 2006 study a 12.3% reduction.
Even those results were questionable, as the authors of those 3 meta-analytic reviews noted problematic study designs in the studies they analyzed. Plus, the programmes themselves make accurate data gathering difficult, with such issues as self-selection of participants and high drop-out rates. One meta analysis found an average drop out rate of 45.2%, with the highest dropout rate being nearly 85%!
The 2012 study reevaluated 96 of the studies that the 3 meta-analytical reviews had examined to determine both study quality and treatment quality. Over 78% of the studies were of such poor quality, they received a “rejected” rating. The other 25% received either a “weak” or “good” rating, but because of their small numbers, were combined into an “acceptable” rating. Plus over half of them received a global confidence rating of “little confidence” and nearly half (46%) had a global bias rating of “considerable bias”, with nearly all studies having a bias direction that was either unclear or favoured an increase in the effect of treatment. Finally, 53 of the evaluations had drop out rates of 50% or higher.
Regarding recidivism, this new meta analysis found that the studies labelled as “rejected” had a recidivism rate of 10.3%, the “weak” studies had a recidivism rate of 8.6%, and the “good” studies had a recidivism rate of only 4.0%. In other words, the worse the studies were designed, the higher the recidivism rates were that were reported, and the better the study designs, the lower the recidivism rates.
Let’s assume—just for argument’s sake—that traditional incarceration results in a recidivism rate of 85%. That means that, according to the best-designed studies of the group (and I’ll just point out that none of the studies received a “strong” rating), of those who go through the drug treatment court, 81.6% will still reoffend.
The province plans to spend $20 million over 4 years to reduce recidivism of non-violent drug offenders by only 4%.
Drug treatment courts are essentially forced treatment: if you have a choice between a treatment programme and incarceration, of course you’d pick treatment. And because it’s functionally forced treatment, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the majority of participants drop out and that nearly as many reoffend as those who go into the incarceration system.
Until we address causes of drug addiction—such as poverty, homelessness, poor mental health care, and so on—we won’t be able to properly address drug crime.
Finally, also included in the announcement was the addition of 3 new Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) investigators to the regional unit based in Red Deer.
As part of the announcement, Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s justice minister, referred to the increase in these investigators as “ensuring law enforcement in central Alberta have the resources they need to disrupt and dismantle the organized crime groups that traffic and supply the illegal drugs that fuel addiction and take a terrible toll on our communities.”
Except they won’t dismantle organized crime. Governments have been trying for decades to dismantle organized crime by increasing the size of law enforcement, yet organized crime has yet to be dismantled.
And as long as drugs remain illegal and people who use drugs remain poor, organized crime is going nowhere.