New York Drug Courts Are a Black Box

Mixed evidence was piling up about a signature New York drug policy experiment. Then the state stopped releasing the data.

Spencer Norris   ·   August 4, 2023
Darkened courthouse in New York City
As academics debated proposals to improve drug courts, New York took another route: stop talking about it. | Wally Gobetz
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New York stopped paying attention to one of its signature drug policy experiments more than half a decade ago.

When New York’s first drug court opened in Rochester in 1995, reformers had high hopes for the model: Rather than locking people up, the courts promised to connect them with treatment and support. Early results suggested they could dramatically reduce recidivism and help stem the rapidly ballooning prison population. The idea caught on, and by the turn of the century, more than 370 drug courts across the country were operating or in the works.

But by 2016, the results were a mixed bag: Drug courts had enabled tens of thousands of New Yorkers to avoid incarceration, but about half of all participants failed out. To get into the program, many had to plead guilty to the highest charge they faced — and faced automatic prison sentences when they failed. In New York City, just one in three of those who made it through graduated with a job. Two of five wound up on Medicaid.

As academics and advocates debated proposals to improve the system, New York took another route: Stop talking about it.

The state’s court system has not released a report on New York City’s drug courts in seven years. It has largely stopped publishing information on how many people are referred to the program, how many complete treatment, and what their outcomes are. And the last statewide evaluation — which analyzed 86 courts and found a “relatively modest” impact on recidivism — was conducted in 2013.

As a result, drug court has become a black box.

The annual reports need to be ordered by the chief clerk of the city’s criminal court, according to Lisa Lindsay, coordinator for the city’s problem-solving courts, which include drug, domestic violence, and other alternatives to criminal court. Acting Chief Clerk Antonio Diaz has not done so since he was appointed in 2021, she said. Diaz did not respond to requests for comment.

Darren Edwards, a research coordinator on the drug courts, chalks up the long silence to leadership changes, the pandemic, and overhauls to court data systems. “When you combine all those three things together, we’re playing catch-up,” he said. Edwards said he plans to ask for approval to release a 2023 report early next year.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state’s courts, said the city reports were “repetitive and duplicative of what we were carrying in other reports and statistics.” Asked for examples of those other reports and data, Chalfen did not respond. Michael Rempel, director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he didn’t know of any reports that include the missing information.

Meanwhile, the state court system has rebuffed efforts to shed light on drug courts. In 2018, the state rejected a non-profit research organization’s request for data on graduation rates, demographics, and outcomes for participants, as well as their request to interview drug court coordinators.

New York Focus submitted its own records request for detailed drug court dockets earlier this year. After a two-month battle, the Office of Court Administration denied the request.

On Friday, following months of questions, the court system sent New York Focus limited data on problem-solving courts. The data appeared to include current enrollment numbers and cumulative graduation rates, but a spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about how to interpret its figures. The data also omitted many of the important factors covered by the annual reports, such as participants’ race, gender, treatment received, the type of drug they were using, and outcomes for graduates.

What is known is that drug court participation has plummeted statewide — falling by nearly half since 2019, the Albany Times Union reported. Rempel attributed that decline largely to the bail reforms passed that year, which eliminated the threat of pretrial incarceration for most low-level offenders, a primary incentive to enroll in drug courts.

But hundreds or thousands of New Yorkers are still participating in drug court — and it’s not known who they are, why they are there, or how they are faring.

Spencer Norris is a reporter at New York Focus investigating drug policy with a focus on the state’s addiction treatment facilities. He was previously the investigative data reporter at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, where his coverage of sex trafficking won statewide awards and… more
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