The NSW Drug Court and Evidence-Based Policy

October 2020

Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously declared that every pet-shop galah these days is talking about microeconomic reform. He might as well have been talking about evidence-based policy (EBP). We are all committed to it, we all think it is a great improvement on guesswork, intuition, prejudice, and anecdote. And yet, if you cast your eyes around the various arms of public policy, it is not hard to find cases where evidence takes a back seat to what’s popular, what feels good or what simply meshes nicely with the opinions of politicians and public servants. This is especially true when it comes to policy on law and order.

Almost every election, for example, State and Territory Governments promise more police. Not to be outdone, State and Territory Opposition Parties usually promise more police too. I do not recall any Government commissioning a study to find out whether the appointment of police reduced crime or proved more cost-effective in reducing crime than other alternatives. The same applies to controversial police tactics, such person searches and move-on directions. The only area of law and order policy in Australia where rigorous evaluation has made significant inroads is at the interface of public health and criminal justice. It is perhaps ironic that while Governments hardly ever evaluate punitive policies, they are quick to call for rigorous evaluation where the issue is whether to treat or punish offenders.

Twenty years ago, the NSW Government followed America’s lead and introduced Australia’s first Drug Court. The assumption underpinning the Drug Court was that much of the offending coming before the courts at that time was committed to raise money to buy illicit drugs. Treat the drug dependence, the argument went, and the offending will stop or substantially decline. Treatment, however, was only one element of the Drug Court program. Whereas in a traditional court the judge’s involvement with an offender ends at the point where a sentence has been imposed, in the Drug Court the judge suspends the sentence and places the offender under the supervision of the Drug Court team.

This team closely monitors the progress of each Drug Court participant and his or her compliance with program conditions. Recognising that offenders usually have high temporal discount rates (i.e. they tend to be highly present oriented), drug court programs involve a system of immediate rewards and sanctions for compliance with program conditions. Notwithstanding this, the Drug Court attracted a good deal of criticism from both conservatives and reformers when it was first announced. Some conservatives took the view that the courts had no business involving themselves in the treatment of offenders. Others criticised the Drug Court as another case of going ‘soft on crime.’ Reformers worried that the advent of the Drug Court would undermine their campaign to have illicit drug use treated as a health problem rather than a crime (or criminal justice) problem.

The results of the first evaluation (a randomised trial) were published in 2002 (Lind et al. 2002) revealed that the Drug Court program was both cheaper than prison and more effective in reducing re-offending. The average follow-up period in the first evaluation, however, was comparatively short: 243 days for the treated subjects and 145 days for the control subjects. A second evaluation with a longer follow-up period was conducted in 2008 (Weatherburn et al. 2008). This evaluation found that, compared with those in the control group, Drug Court participants were 17 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for any offence, 30 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for a violent offence and 38 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for a drug offence at any point during the follow-up period.

My colleagues and I have just completed a long-term follow-up of the first cohort of graduates from the NSW Drug Court (Weatherburn et al. 2020) and found a 17 per cent lower re-offending rate in the treatment group than in the control group and a 22 per cent lower risk of violent offending in the treatment group than the control group. This is a surprising finding because most of the participants in this study completed their drug program more than a decade ago. It was not that surprising to find a reduction in re-offending during or soon after participation in the Drug Court program. It is remarkable to find a change that has lasted more than ten years. It suggests that the program induces lasting behavioural change rather than a temporary suppression of offending.

You might think that the success of the Drug Court program would have stimulated interest in evaluating other correctional programs, but you would be wrong. In their review of custodial rehabilitation programs in 1999, Howells and Day noted that:

‘a common shortcoming of many programs is a lack of evaluation. Programs are often either not evaluated or evaluation methods fail to meet the conventional requirements of research design’ (Howells & Day, 1999, p. 5; see also Day, 2020).

When Heseltine, Sarre, and Day (2011) reviewed the situation up to 2009, they concluded that the quality of [correctional] programs ‘appears to be improving, although ongoing evaluations are yet to establish the[ir] effectiveness’ (Heseltine, Sarre, and Day 2011, p. x). They found that most jurisdictions had not evaluated any of their programs, while those that had evaluated at least one had evaluated fewer than half. Things have improved since 2011 but there is still a long way to go. The biggest single impediment to rigorous evaluation is the fear many public servants have of telling Government ministers that their programs or policies do not work. Central agencies (Treasury, Premier and Cabinet) are trying to promote a culture of rigorous evaluation but one of the best ways to ensure such evaluation is through partnerships between Government and the University sector.  




Day, A. (2020). At a crossroads? Offender rehabilitation in Australian prisons. Psychology, Psychiatry and Law. DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2020.1751335.

Heseltine, K., Sarre, R., & Day, A. (2011). Prison-based correctional offender rehabilitation programs: The 2009 national picture in Australia. Research and Public Policy Series 112. Australian Institute of Criminology.

Howells, K., & Day, A. (1999). The rehabilitation of offenders: International perspectives applied to Australian correctional systems. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice 112. Australian Institute of Criminology.

Lind, B., Weatherburn, D., Chen, S., Shanahan, M., Lancsar, E., Haas, M. & De Abreu Lourenco, R. (2002). NSW Drug Court Evaluation: Cost-Effectiveness. Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Weatherburn, D., Jones., Snowball, L. & Hua, J. (2008). The NSW Drug Court: A re-evaluation of its effectiveness. Crime and Justice Bulletin 121. Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

Weatherburn, D., Yeong, S., Poynton, S., Jones, N. & Farrell, M. (2020). The Long-Term Effect of the NSW Drug Court on recidivism. Crime and Justice Bulletin no. 232. Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.