The Drug Court Team and Discretionary Decision-Making: A Mixed-Methods Examination of Sanctioning Responses to Continued Participant Alcohol and Other Drug Use

AuthorBenjamin R. Gibbs,Tusty ten Bensel,Madison K. Doyle,William Wakefield
Published date01 February 2021
Date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(1) 27 –48
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420904127
The Drug Court Team and
Discretionary Decision-
Making: A Mixed-Methods
Examination of Sanctioning
Responses to Continued
Participant Alcohol and
Other Drug Use
Benjamin R. Gibbs1, Tusty ten Bensel2,
Madison K. Doyle2, and William Wakefield3
Drug courts attempt to gain participant compliance and alcohol and other drug
(AOD) use abstinence through a strategy of moderate and progressive sanctioning,
but its discretionary application possesses the capacity for disparity across participants
and behaviors. The purpose of this study was to examine the drug court team’s
(DCT) discretionary use of sanctions in response to continued participant AOD
use. A mixed-methods approach was used for analyzing agency data (n = 1,032)
and interviews of five members of the DCT. Data were collected from an adult
felony drug court over a 6-year period (2008–2013) and use to answer the following
research question: “What participant characteristics and program performance
measures affected sanctioning outcomes?” We found that offender attributes did play
a role in the sanctioning decision, but program performance measures were stronger
predictors of sanction type.
drug court, punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence
1Ball State University, Muncie, IN, USA
2University of Arkansas at Little Rock, USA
3University of Nebraska Omaha, USA
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin R. Gibbs, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Ball State University, North Quad,
278, Muncie, IN 47306, USA.
904127CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420904127Criminal Justice Policy ReviewGibbs et al.
28 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(1)
The drug court model employs two complementary components—substance abuse
treatment and intensive supervision—to bring about client alcohol and other drug
(AOD) abstinence and reduce recidivism among offenders (National Association of
Drug Court Professionals [NADCP], 2013). The treatment component of this model
focuses on rehabilitation that closely aligns with participant needs (Birgden, 2004).
The supervision component relies on surveillance and punishment to obtain partici-
pant compliance and desistance from AOD use (Burns & Peyrot, 2003; Taxman,
2002). Drug courts use incremental and progressive punishments to deter future viola-
tions rather than program revocation for noncompliance (NADCP, 2013), which is
often viewed as a strength and an integral component of the drug court model (Zweig
et al., 2012). The punitive measures doled out by drug court team (DCT) have been
tied to program outcomes and reduction in participant recidivism (Brown et al., 2010;
Zweig et al., 2012); however, drug courts possess a capacity to apply sanctions differ-
ently across participants (Zweig et al., 2012).
Frequent drug screenings and immediate and moderate sanctioning are the primary
tools used by drug courts to coerce AOD abstinence (Carey et al., 2012). Drug testing
is seen as an opportunity to continuously assess a participant’s level of care (Chandler
et al., 2009); however, sanctions are also levied to respond to the noncompliant behav-
ior (NADCP, 2013). NADCP (2013) recognize that a reasonable amount of discretion
should be applied to address individual needs (Carey et al., 2012; Zweig et al., 2012),
despite critics advocating complete equity in sanctioning outcomes (Taxman et al.,
1999). The discretionary use of punishment and disparate sanctions may engender
feelings of unfairness, in which participants may question the legitimacy of the pro-
gram (Goldkamp, 2002; Marlowe, 2008; Taxman, 2002). These perceptions may be
amplified in instances of positive drug screens as prior research has found the harshest
sanctions are reserved for those who continue their AOD use (Guastaferro & Daigle,
2012). Despite the breadth of drug court research, no study has examined the discre-
tionary responses to positive drug screens and individual-level characteristics that may
influence the sanctioning decision.
The purpose of this study was to examine a DCT’s discretionary use of sanctions to
continued participant AOD use. We focused on responses to positive AOD screens due
to its centrality in the drug court model. There has been only one other study that has
quantitatively examined predictors of sanctioning responses (Guastaferro & Daigle,
2012) and found that positive drug tests were sanctioned more severely than other
program violations. In the current study, a mixed-methods approach was used. We
quantitatively analyzed 1,032 sanctioning events, which stemmed from positive AOD
screens, as well as offender characteristics and program performance measures on the
sanctions levied in positive AOD screens. Qualitatively, we interviewed the entire
DCT (with the exception of two judges), focusing on how sanctioning decisions were
made. Our primary research question was, “What participant characteristics and pro-
gram performance measures affected sanctioning outcomes?” We focused on the rela-
tionship between offender characteristics, type of substance used, previous violations,

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