PhD research: Are all drug courts the same, and do they work?

18 DECEMBER 2019

PhD research: Are all drug courts the same, and do they work?

The findings of research by a recent Charles Sturt University PhD graduate could have a direct and significant impact on the effectiveness of drug courts in Australia.

Dr Amanda Clarke (pictured above at her graduation) lives in the Hills District of Sydney and graduated at the Charles Sturt Faculty of Business, Justice and Behavioural Sciences ceremony in Bathurst on Thursday 12 December.

Her PhD thesis is titled ‘Justice, rehabilitation and reintegration: evaluating the effectiveness of drug courts in Australia’.

“The outcomes of my research enables policymakers to adopt only those practices that have the backing of empirical support establishing their success for participants on a drug court program,” Dr Clarke said.

“Specifically, the knowledge gained supports policymakers to allocate scarce resources for services that are effective, or discontinue unsuccessful treatment services and/or practices.”

Dr Clarke is a Sergeant with more than 25 years’ service in the NSW Police Force, and completed her PhD through the Charles Sturt Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security.

She also has a Master of Leadership and Management (Policing and Security) and a research Masters of Intelligence Analysis, both completed at Charles Sturt.

“For the past 18 years I have been affiliated with the Drug Court of NSW, primarily as a Drug Court Police Prosecutor attached to Police Prosecutions Command,” Dr Clarke said.

“Before my appointment to the Drug Court in 2001, I had been an operational police officer, performing duties at Central Sydney, Kings Cross, Parramatta, Wentworthville, and Holroyd Local Area Commands.

“Having seen the impact of drugs and crime on the community, I was drawn to the Drug Court where at the time it was a new and innovative criminal jurisdiction system that was being implemented internationally to reduce drug-related crime.

“I have been active in the establishment and development of procedures in the Drug Court because I have in-depth knowledge of therapeutic jurisprudence.”

Statue of Blind Justice with sword and scalesDr Clarke has represented the NSW Police Force on numerous specialist criminal jurisdictions committees, including the Implementation Group for Drug Courts in NSW, and internationally is a current active member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

She noted the establishment of drug courts has been hailed for some years now as a credible addition to the Australian criminal justice system, one intended to positively influence the drug-crime nexus.

“Drug courts have now entered their second decade of existence in Australia and bring a considerable literature base with them, with recidivism being the default outcome measure used to determine drug court program performance,” she said.

“My research determined what other elements of the drug court process are linked to the successful completion of a drug court program.”

Dr Clarke explained that drug courts address drug dependence as a root cause of criminal behaviours by operating with community support and through partnerships between treatment providers and the criminal justice system.

“A drug court’s success depends heavily on adopting practices that distinguish it from a number of standard criminal justice processes,” she said.

“They do this by implementing the drug court model with fidelity, and adhering to best practices identified in the components reflected in the Ten Key Components developed by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and related literature.

“The challenge addressed by my research was to determine the relative contributions of the various elements of this model; that is, does each element contribute to the overall impact of a drug court, and are some more important than others.

“A high priority, for example, was testing the assumption that the role of the drug court judge is a fundamental and core element of the model in producing positive treatment outcomes.”

Dr Clarke said other core assumptions of the model needing critical examination related to the use of sanctions, the relative value of sanctions and rewards in the courtroom, and whether drug court participants are really motivated toward favourable progress by fear of going into custody rather than being genuinely responsive to those sanctions and rewards.

“Although there was abundant evidence attesting to the effectiveness of drug courts, much more work was needed to isolate which groups of offenders are best served by this approach, and which particular elements of the drug court model are most relevant to positive outcomes,” she said.

Dr Clarke’s research used a pragmatic approach and a mixed-methods research design that incorporated quantitative and qualitative approaches to achieve two objectives.

The first objective was to identify assessment criteria for Australian drug courts in relation to the operation of the five Australian drug court jurisdictions of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, and Western Australia.

The second objective was to identify elements of the drug court process that are related to success from the perspective of drug court stakeholders, primarily their participants.

Dr Clarke’s research identified five assessment criteria that can be described as indicators of a drug court’s success: breaking the drug-crime nexus, economic feasibility, general society well-being, governance, and participant satisfaction.

It also identified that one overarching theme − the rehabilitative ideal − is linked to drug court success.

Central to this theme are four notable elements, namely: structure and accountability, judicial relationship, court capacity, and rewards and sanctions.

“While this constitutes a significant progression, work remains to isolate which elements are relevant to positive outcomes,” Dr Clarke said.

“In this vein, drug courts can be informed by the drug court model, identified success assessment measures, and identified outcomes developed in this research.

“However, the task remains to distinguish between the instrumental functions and their outcomes.

“The appearances before the judge, the appointments for treatment, drug tests and other activities form part of the delivery of the treatment effect, while the results they produce − drug court success or failure − are overall drug court outcomes.”

Dr Clarke’s study was circulated to government policymakers and stakeholders that are involved in the implementation and application of drug courts.

“The study and its findings were provided to those involved in the delivery of health and legal services to drug courts in Australia, so that the study outcomes could be circulated to members within their agency who are working directly with drug dependent offenders,” Dr Clarke.

“One of the strengths of the drug court is its flexibility, because participant populations among Australian drug courts differ in relation to drug of choice, level of drug dependence, legal issues, and life issues such as employment, education, and health needs.

“Beyond the main effects of the drug court treatment variables, there are various other elements of the drug court program that undoubtedly work together to govern the participants in different (and more total) ways.

“Accordingly, the final recommendation for drug courts is that they remain flexible in practices so as to best fit their participants, their relationships among the collaborating agencies, and their environment. “This would help add depth to the discussion on drug courts that is often guided by the false assumption that all drug courts are essentially the same.”

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Amanda Clarke, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 660 362 or

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