The Judicial Ethics Forum (JEF)

An Academic Discussion of Judicial Ethics, Discipline & Disqualification

New Drug Court Study and the Effectiveness of Ethics

Posted by kswisher on Sunday, August, 7, 2011

An ambitious study of drug courts was recently completed.  Funded by the National Institute of Justice, several collaborating organizations analyzed more than twenty drug courts over a five-year period.  Not surprisingly, the study contains many interesting observations, but what is particularly noteworthy is the correlation between judicial ethics and the effectiveness of those drug courts.  That is, almost all of the following findings would have been required or (at a minimum) encouraged as a matter of judicial ethics:

Role of the Judge: The primary mechanism by which drug courts reduce substance use and crime is through the judge. Drug court offenders believe that their judge treated them more fairly than the comparison group, including demonstrating greater respect and interest in them as individuals and greater opportunities to express their own voice during the proceedings. Furthermore, when offenders have more positive attitudes toward the judge, they have better outcomes. This was true across all offender subgroups when examining demographics, drug use history, criminality, and mental health. A separate analysis drawing upon the results of structured courtroom observations found, similarly, that drug courts whose judge was rated by members of the research team as exhibiting a more positive judicial demeanor (e.g., respectful, fair, attentive, enthusiastic, consistent/predictable, caring, and knowledgeable) produced better outcomes than other drug courts. Both analyses reaffirmed the central role of the judge.

Judges may well have performed these duties as a matter of principle, but it is doubly rewarding to see the principles leading to good results.  In light of the above conclusions, the study recommends these four points for drug court judges:

  • Hold frequent judicial status hearings; in light of previous research on this topic, consider increasing the frequency of status hearings for “high risk” participants in particular.
  • If the jurisdiction allows it, choose drug court judges carefully. Drug courts will be best served if administrators intentionally assign judges to the drug court who are committed to the model and interested in serving in this role.
  • Monitor “client satisfaction” with the judge.
  • Train judges on best practices regarding judicial demeanor and regarding how to communicate effectively with program participants.

The study can be found here.

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