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Assessing the causes of racial disparities in drug courts: An intersectional approach to eliminating barriers to admittance

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Awardee County
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $533,204)

Drug policy has shifted from intense criminalization during the War on Drugs toward reforms prioritizing drug treatment in response to the opioid crisis. As a result, drug courts have emerged and proliferated across the most affected states, such as Ohio, with positive impacts on recidivism, drug relapses, and cost reductions. Despite these shifts, significant racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing outcomes and drug court diversion and participation persist. Scholars have pointed toward disqualifying factors, such as previous violent offenses, as drivers of racial disparities. Yet, current evidence is inconclusive regarding whether drug courts themselves, as well as racial and ethnic disparities in case processing, contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing outcomes. Given that previous research on drug courts has largely been quantitative, little is known about why and how racial disparities in drug court diversion and participation persist, which is key for understanding underlying mechanisms and points of intervention to reduce criminal justice and health inequalities.

The proposed project employs a mixed-methods approach to examine: (1) how drug courts impact racial disparities in drug sentencing outcomes; (2) whether racial disparities in charging and sentencing decisions produce racially disparate access to drug courts; and (3) how drug court stakeholders perceive racial disparities in admittance to drug court and potential interventions to reduce them. To answer the first two questions, the research team will draw on 573,294 Franklin County
Municipal Court and Common Pleas case data from 2001 to 2021—before and after implementing drug courts in the county—and quasi-experimental methods. In addition, the applicant will employ ethnographic observations of Ohio drug courts and conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews with drug court stakeholders to address the third research question.

Deliverables resulting from this study will be targeted to scholarly outlets, key stakeholders, and policymakers. First, a comprehensive research report will be delivered to NIJ, and the study data will be archived at NACJD no later than the end of the project period. Second, the research findings will be disseminated via virtual training sessions for stakeholders from the Ohio drug courts. Similarly, virtual professional development sessions will be convened for governmental and nonprofits entities to learn about the study and findings. Third, the team will also use social media to disseminate results. Fourth, the project staff will present the research and its findings at professional conferences geared toward academic audiences. Finally, three scientific peer-reviewed journals are planned to account for different study aspects. CA/NCF

Date Created: August 24, 2022