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Drug courts and the facilitation of turning points: an expansion of life course theory.


Life course theory, originally developed to account for adolescent deviance, has been expanded to explain criminal behavior over the course of an offender's life (Cullen, Wright, & Blevins, 2006; Sampson & Laub, 2005). Certain life events such as marriage, military service, obtaining educational goals, gaining employment, and becoming a parent can be considered turning points in an offender's life, which can modify the trajectory of her life course and alter his/her propensity to engage in criminal or antisocial behavior (Elder, 1986; Rutter, Quinton, & Hill, 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1990, 1993).

Drug courts were developed as a response to the burgeoning population of drug offenders in the criminal justice system (Belenko, 1998; Fulkerson, Keena, & O'Brien, 2012; Hora, Schma, & Rosenthal, 1999; Patten, Messer, & Candela, 2014). This increased demand for drug courts has resulted in the creation of thousands of courts in the United States (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011; Huddleston, Marlowe, & Casebolt, 2008; Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, & MacKenzie, 2012). As an example, in 2010, 85% of offenders incarcerated under state or federal jurisdiction required substance use treatment (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2010). Following a rehabilitation model, many drug courts use interventions that combine treatment, intensive supervision, and regular court appearances (Fulkerson, 2009; Fulkerson et al., 2012; Keena, Fulkerson, & Griep, 2007; Patten et al., 2014). One outcome of drug court is the ability to alter the trajectory of the offender's life course and reduce his or her propensity to engage in future illegal activities.

There is a plethora of research pertaining to drug courts including their effectiveness (Fulkerson et al., 2012; Gottfredson, Najaka, & Kearley, 2003; Mitchell et al., 2012), perspectives of past participants (Fischer, Geiger, & Hughes, 2007; Goldkamp, White, & Robinson, 2002; Roberts & Wolfer, 2011; Wolfer, 2006), program evaluations (Deschenes, Turner, & Greenwood, 1995; Gottfredson, Kearley, Najaka, & Rocha, 2005; Rempel et al., 2003), and motivation for participation (Farole & Cissner, 2005; Goldkamp et al., 2002; Patten et al., 2014). Similarly, a copious amount of scholarship exists pertaining to life course theory and the examination of turning points in a criminal career (Cullen et al., 2006; Moffitt, 1993; Patterson, 1993; Rutter et al., 1990; Sampson & Faub, 1990, 1993, 2003,2005). There is, however, virtually no literature examining drug court and the participation in drug court as a turning point using the life course theory model. As will be explained, drug court provides powerful incentives and punishments for its participants, facilitating a turning point to desist in a criminal lifestyle. This study adds to existing literature on life course theory and drug courts by using interviews of former rural drug court participants to understand the impact of drug court on their life trajectories.

A Brief Overview of Life Course Theory

Fife course theory was originally developed to explain criminal behavior and deviance over the course of a lifetime (Sampson & Faub, 1990, 1993, 2003, 2005). Sampson and Laub (1993) theorized the use of incarceration to reduce recidivism was too narrow of a concept and should include other key institutional settings such as family dynamics, education, employment, and geographic location. They expanded upon the research of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), acknowledging the impact of early childhood behavior and self-control, but refuting the contention that future behavior as an adult has little or no significance on criminality.

There are three main tenets of life course theory (Sampson & Laub, 1993). First, the framework utilized by the social control aspects of family and school, although informal, can explain early childhood and adolescent criminal or deviant behavior. Second, there is an amount of permanency in criminal or deviant behavior from adolescence to adulthood in various aspects of life. Finally, Sampson and Laub (1993) noted informal social ties in adulthood to family, education, and career can explain the shift from criminal or delinquent behavior over the course of a life regardless of childhood deviance. In other words, these forms of informal social control can be considered turning points in the course of a life span.

Turning points. According to life course theory, an individual travels on a trajectory or pathway through life, however, situational events and informal, nongovernmental institutions like work, school, and family can act as turning points. These turning points can redirect the individual's trajectory altering his/her life course (Sampson & Laub, 1993). In order for a life event to be considered a turning point, the length of time on a new trajectory must be long enough that it is apparent the course has changed (Abbott, 1997; Piquero, 2008). Turning points can also be considered to be preceded by troubling or challenging circumstances that illustrate an individual's character (Denzin, 1989).

Events such as marriage, becoming a parent, and obtaining employment can be considered turning points that alter an individual's propensity to engage in criminal behavior and set him/her on a new trajectory (Craig, Diamond, & Piquero, 2014; Doherty & Ensminger, 2013; King, Massoglia, & MacMillan, 2007; Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Sampson & Laub, 2003; Theobald & Farrington, 2009; Uggen, 2000; Waite & Gallagher, 2000; Warr, 1998). The attachment associated with marriage is often attributed to a decrease in the propensity to engage in antisocial or criminal behavior because with marriage comes social attachment to a spouse and a sense of familial obligation (Osgood & Lee, 1993). This attachment can be associated with turning away from the criminal lifestyle because there is more to lose and more time spent with the family leaves less time to engage in antisocial or criminal behavior (Nagin & Paternoster, 1994; Sampson & Laub, 2003).

Much like the partnership and social control created by marriage, becoming a parent can decrease the likelihood of an individual to engage in delinquent or criminal behavior (Elder, 1986; Rutter et al., 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1993, 1997). Having children adds a certain level of new, parental responsibilities. Becoming a parent can lead to new opportunities to socialize (with other parents), can require changing neighborhoods (moving to the suburbs), and can result in a shift toward more family-oriented routines and activities (Sampson & Laub, 2003).

Strong ties to the values associated with work can also change an individual's trajectory and allow him/her from offending or reoffending (Graham & Bowling, 1995; Vaillant & Vaillant, 1981). The stability provided by continuous employment has demonstrated a strong correlation with the shift away from criminal behavior because employment acts as a form of social control (Benda, 2005; Sampson & Laub, 2003). Additionally, work can give an individual a sense of identity and increase self-esteem (Sampson & Laub, 1993). An individual with gainful employment also increases his/her number of interactions with prosocial persons (Uggen, 2000; Warr, 1998). Maintaining stable employment also promotes conformity through informal social control (Sampson & Laub, 2003; Uggen, 2000).

Turning Points in Substance Use Research

The concept of turning points in substance use, both drug and alcohol, has been examined in the literature. The research has identified two broad classifications delineating how turning points can lead to a reduction or cessation of substance use: self-motivations (Andersen, 2015; Blomqvist, 2002; Doukas, 2011; Henwood, Padgett, Smith, & Tiderington, 2012; Kaskutas, 1996; Kearney & O'Sullivan, 2003; McIntosh & McKeganey, 2000) and the influence of others (Curran, Muthen, & Harford, 1998; Dawson, Goldstein, Ruan, & Grant, 2012; Dawson, Grant, Stinson, & Chou, 2006; Jessup et al., 2014).

Perhaps one of the strongest internal turning points is a change in how the users view themselves. Perception of self as a nonuser can be very powerful in promoting change (Doukas, 2011; Kearney & O'Sullivan, 2003; McIntosh & McKeganey, 2000). Similarly, changing the personal narrative, reconstructing self-identity, and an increased self-awareness can be influential turning points (Andersen, 2015; Henwood et al., 2012; Herbeck, Brecht, Christou, & Lovinger, 2014). Many users "tire of the lifestyle" and seek to alter their past substance abusing trajectories (Best, Ghufran, Day, Ray, & Loaring, 2008).

Chronic alcohol and drug users frequently encounter financial and job stresses that create a turning point. Not only is the cost of alcohol and drug use a problem, but work performance can suffer sometimes and lead to job termination, which exacerbates the cost concerns of alcohol and drug use (Satre, Chi, Mertens, & Weisner, 2012). Being fired from a job or not being able to financially afford their old lifestyle can create a "rock bottom" experience which can be a turning point for many people (Blomqvist, 2002).

Alcohol and drug users are also subject to external relationships and the influence of others. Past research has noted the stabilizing nature of marriage and how it can lead to a decrease of substance use (Curran et al., 1998; Dawson et al., 2006; Karlamangla, Zhou, Reuben, Greendale, & Moore, 2006). Not only is marriage a turning point, but the sway of other significant relationships can also be highly influential. Henwood, Padgett, Smith, and Tiderington (2012) noted the support of peers in Alcoholics Anonymous often times served as a positive anchor for others in the group. Additionally, the desire to be a better parent or reestablish a relationship with children is often a powerful motivator. In particular, the loss of contact or loss of custody of a child or children can serve as a strong turning point for many of those struggling with addiction (Dawson et al., 2012; Jessup et al., 2014).

As mentioned above, there are many potential turning points for substance users and misusers to alter their life course trajectories. While some come to these turning points naturally, many arrive through participation in legally required programs such as drug court. Drug court can act as a catalyst for change and facilitate turning points through its formal and informal social control mechanisms.

A Brief Overview of Drug Courts

In 1989, the over-representation of drug offenders frequenting the criminal justice system resulted in the creation of the first drug court in Florida (Fulkerson et al., 2012; Hora et al., 1999). Drug courts were created as an alternative sanction for convicted drug offenders with the goal of assisting them in maintaining their sobriety and, in turn, lowering recidivism rates (Belenko, 1998; Carey, Mackin, & Finnigan, 2012; Listwan, Sundt, Holsinger, & Latessa, 2003). Since their foundation, drug courts have grown exponentially, reaching more than 2,400 programs nationwide (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011). These programs vary in design, but most use a similar, basic design. Typically, drug court programs offer a multitude of services and mandate at least a year of treatment before the participants are eligible to graduate (Lindquist, Krebs, Warner, & Lattimore, 2009). These services generally include court hearings, urinalysis drug testing, attending outpatient treatment or counseling, and frequent participation in Narcotics Anonymous or other support group meetings (Mitchell et al., 2012). Drug court programs require participants to navigate through different stages of treatment that become progressively less intensive as they progress. Typically, the drug court model utilizes graduated rewards and sanctions to assist offenders in becoming more accountable. This strategy also encourages increased retention rates in drug court programming (Belenko, 1998).

Drug courts differ from the adversarial nature of criminal courts. They are a collaborative effort involving court personnel (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and clerks), treatment staff (therapists, counselors, and social workers), probation officers, and correctional staff (Bums & Peyrot, 2003; Emerson, 1983; Judge, 1997; Nolan, 2001). Although these programs are rehabilitative in nature, it is important to note the rigorous demands and close monitoring by the courts, which can be demonstrated by somewhat high failure rates. Studies show nearly half of drag court participants fail programming and are sentenced to prison (Belenko, 2001; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1997; Mitchell et al., 2012; Patten et al., 2014).

Numerous dmg court evaluations have demonstrated generally lower recidivism rates for offenders who complete a program compared to those who do not (Fulkerson et al., 2012; Rempel et al., 2003; Shaffer, 2011; Wilson, Mitchell, & MacKenzie, 2006). A national study of dmg court graduates showed a 2-year recidivism rate of 28% (Roman, Townsend, & Bhati, 2003). Similarly, Wilson, Mitchell, and MacKenzie (2006) compiled findings of over 50 dmg court program evaluations which revealed similarly situated drug offenders recidivated less frequently if they had completed dmg court. More recently, Shaffer (2011) conducted a similar study of over 80 drug courts and found recidivism rates of 46% for those who participated in drug court programming and 55% for those who did not. While not perfect, drug court graduates generally maintain lower recidivism rates.

While many studies analyze the effectiveness of drug courts, a critical perspective must also be examined. Early studies of drug courts demonstrated a reduction in recidivism, however, these were relatively short-term outcomes due to the length of follow-up periods (Turner et al., 2002). Tiger (2011) explains the limitations of drug courts based on their jurisdictions. Drug courts measure success based on participants' ability to abstain from drugs, change their employment or educational statuses, comply with mental health mandates, and not recidivate. She goes on to suggest perhaps these metrics are not adequate. Participants must engage in community service, alter relationships with family members, and develop prosocial community ties. This understanding of limitations builds on Garland's (1990) explanation of how the combination of a scientific approach and normalized practices is more telling of the bureaucratization of the penal system rather than rehabilitation. Similarly, Kaye (2013) explains how the nature of treatment provided by therapeutic courts can often have a prolonged punishment effect rather than a rehabilitative one. Drug court participants are sometimes complying with mandates simply to navigate the program as presented and remove themselves from the control of the criminal justice system as opposed to desisting in drug use.

Drug Courts, Gender, and Recidivism

Previous research on gendered differences in drug court literature is uneven. Hickert, Boyle, and Tollefson (2009) reviewed 11 studies to determine whether gender is a predictor of completion or retention in drug court. One showed women were more likely than men to drop out of the program, another showed women were more likely to complete drug court than men, yet another showed men were participating more after 6 months, and in the other 8, gender did not have statistical significance. Similarly, Somers, Moniruzzaman, Rezansoff, and Patterson (2014) provided an examination of 400 drug court participants in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which demonstrated no statistical significance when exploring recidivism rates and controlling for gender. Lower recidivism rates were linked to tenure in the program and graduation status. Benda (2005) studied 300 men and 300 women enrolled in a drug "boot camp" and found after 1 year, nearly 85% of men had not recidivated, whereas about 95% of women had not recidivated. Offenders chose to participate in the program as an alternative to a state prison commitment, much like drug court participants (Benda, 2005). Ultimately, the findings vary concerning whether women are more likely than men to remain in substance use treatment programs (Greenfield et al., 2007).

Drug court does, however, appear to have the capacity to facilitate artificial turning points for its participants. As discussed above, drug court provides participants with formal processes to help moderate and improve life trajectories. As noted by Blomqvist (2002), there should be formal interventions directed at supporting natural change processes. This study adds to the existing literature by examining drug court's ability to be a turning point through the participants' own experiences. While previous research has examined specific contextual turning points (health, relationships, and others), there is no research that analyzes drug court itself as a mechanism for creating or facilitating turning points.


Research for this study occurred in Foothill County in northern California. (1) While strict definitions of rural or urban vary greatly, based on several considerations. Foothill County can be considered rural. (2) Since 1995, Foothill County has had an adult drug court, and while the site has served as a training site for the National Drug Court Institute and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, at its core, the Foothill County Drug Court (FCDC) operates in a style similar to most other American drug courts. At the time this study was conducted, the drug court's enrollment was capped at 100 participants and the targeted population was felony offenders whose motivation for criminal behavior stemmed from drug addiction.

The FCDC is a post-conviction court, where participants enter as a condition of formal probation or after a violation of probation from an existing criminal case. The underlying conviction need not be for a drug or drug-related offense, but if it is established the participant has a drug or alcohol dependency, then the individual can be referred to FCDC. Candidates typically have been on formal probation for a substantial period of time without success before entry into FCDC.

The designed length of FCDC program is 24 months, however, individual times vary widely based on phase or programmatic failure or success. There are four phases within the FCDC, but the steps needed to pass differ for each individual. In general, participants are required to complete several, if not all, of the following tasks: earn a general educational development (GED) certificate, attend drunken driving awareness courses, attend AIDS awareness courses, pay victim restitution, pay court fees, attend 12step meetings, provide clean urine samples, attend individual or group dmg treatment sessions, live in residential drug treatment, maintain employment or actively seek employment, and attend individual and/or group counseling sessions with Foothill County Behavioral Health (FCBH). Ultimately, an individual's progress in the program is based on the collective judgment of the prosecutor, defense, representatives from FCBH and Foothill County Probation Department, as well as the judge.

The data for this study come from 29 interviews with former participants of the FCDC using a convenience and snowball sample. In fall 2011, the authors obtained the addresses for 113 members of the 2004-2005 FCDC and mailed letters inviting them to participate in an interview about their FCDC experience. (3) The 2004-2005 cohort was selected based on previous research conducted by the authors on the FCDC. Additionally, the authors wanted to select potential participants who had some time to reflect on their FCDC experience and provide insight related to if their involvement in FCDC created turning points that altered their criminal trajectories, if at all.

Of the 113 letters mailed, 47 were returned because the participant no longer resided at the known address. Of the remaining 66 invitation letters that were not returned to sender, 6 participants contacted the authors and consented to interviews. Through these six participants, the authors were informed of a support group that contained many alumni of the FCDC. An additional eight participants were acquired through the support group. The remaining 16 participants were acquired through the assistance of a counselor from the FCBH. This counselor had contact information for many former FCDC participants and provided it to the authors with advanced consent from those individuals. All interviewees were compensated US$25 for their time.

The interviews transpired in spring 2012 in two cities within Foothill County. Only one participant was interviewed at a time, so the interviewees could speak freely without others overhearing or influencing their answers. The interviews were semi-structured and utilized an interview guide, but the order of questions was not always adhered to, so as not to interfere with the flow of the narrative (Fischer et al., 2007; Patton, 2001; Roberts & Wolfer, 2011). The questions asked were broad and open ended, which allowed for a participant-directed interview and permitted the participants to reconstruct their experiences and recall their perceptions (see Table 1 for the questions used in this study; Vandermause, Severtsen, & Roll, 2013). The interviewers had no connection to the FCDC, or any of its agencies, and had no prior relationship with participants prior to the interview. On average, the interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes. All of the interviews were professionally transcribed and the participants were guaranteed confidentiality.

After the interviews were transcribed, a content analysis was conducted to better understand the participants' responses and to organize their replies into appropriate groupings. The content analysis utilized for this study followed Berg's (2001) recommendation and involved manifest and latent analyses of the data. First, manifest coding provided counts of cases and examples for predetermined categories (Neuman, 2003). Second, latent coding was used to uncover the meaning of the interviews provided by the participants. Additionally, different rounds of coding were required, also known as coding frames. After each participants' responses about the general impact of drug court were coded, any additional responses were coded as favorable, unfavorable, or neutral. Last, the vignettes were subcategorized into smaller, overlapping groups.

The sample contained 24 FCDC graduates and 5 that were terminated. Ten of the 29 participants were men,4 27 of the 29 were White, and the average age was 37 years old (the youngest was 24 and the oldest was 55). The primary drug of choice for the participants was methamphetamine (72%), prescription drugs (14%), alcohol (10%), and opiates (3%). The average age of first drug use was 13 years old, with the youngest at 6 and the oldest at 26. The average time spent in the FCDC was 28 months, with the shortest being 16 months (that person was terminated) and the longest being 46 months (that person graduated). Six of the participants (21%) were from the 2004-2005 cohort, three (10%) were from older cohorts, but the majority (20; 69%) were from more recent cohorts. The average length of time from graduating or being terminated from FCDC was 2 years and 10 months (the longest was 9 years and the shortest was 1 year). The interviewees had varying lengths of sobriety, from 3 months to 10 years, with the average length of sobriety being 3!4> years (see Table 1).


Even though drug court might be less of a voluntary choice than college, military service, or marriage, drug court still inspired many of the participants to abandon their criminal behavior. The participants consistently discussed how different components of their drug court experience facilitated different turning points. While engaged in the drug court process, the participants noted many seemingly small life improvements, such as the acquisition of a driver's license, to larger advances, such as a new found sense of self. Additionally, the impact of drug court in facilitating turning points was not consistent among men and women. More often, women discussed the beneficial nature of their drug court participation compared to their male counterparts (see Table 2).

Self-improvement. Like many drug courts around the nation, the FCDC makes many self-improvement goals, such as obtaining a general equivalency degree (GED), a driver's license, or a job, compulsory for its participants. Seven of 29 (24%) participants earned their GED, 15 of 29 gained their drivers' license (52%), and 16 of 29 (55%) became employed either during or after their drug court experience.
   Without drug court I wouldn't have gotten my GED, I wouldn't be
   working, and I wouldn't have a work ethic ... I'm just better off
   with the drug court. (29-year-old female, graduated FCDC)

Another participant also reflected how drug court provided job training skills, which resulted in obtaining employment:
   While I was in drug court there was a class that we had to go to
   twice a week if you don't already have a job ... and they help you
   with learning how to apply [for a job] and what to do and how to
   dress and all that and I got two jobs during drug court.
   (34-year-old female, failed FCDC)

Family. As noted in the literature (Rehm et al., 1996; Hibell et al., 2000), habitual drug use often strains and/or ruins many relationships with family. Most of the participants talked about how their participation in drug court positively influenced their relationships with family. Twenty of the 29 (69%) interviewees cited their participation in drug court as beneficial in reconnection with family members. I
   I had destroyed and abandoned every relationship that was ever
   important to me, and by the time I had completed drug court I had a
   really good relationship with my mother. (45-year-old female,
   graduated FCDC)

Another participant reflected on his improved family connections:
   Going to drug court showed that I meant what I said when I wanted
   to quit, and [my family is] more and more happy every day. My mom
   is less stressed and my grandmother is especially [less stressed].
   (46-yearold male, graduated FCDC)

Parenting. As also indicated in the literature, drug use frequently ruins the bonds between a parent and a child (Burstein, Stanger, & Dumenci 2012; Harmer, Sanderson, & Mertin, 1999; Keller, Cummings, Davies, & Mitchell, 2008). Of the 23 participants who had children, 9 (39%) of the participants specifically mentioned how drug court helped them reconcile with their children and become better, more present parents.
   Before drug court [my kids] didn't want me to be around them, they
   didn't want to talk to me, and since I got on drug court and they
   could see that I was making an effort to change my life. Now we
   talk on the phone, or we go out to have lunch. (39-year-old female,
   graduated FCDC)

A female participant also explained how the drug court experience allowed her to become more included in the lives of her children:
   I'm involved with my kids now. I'm there for them ... Before drug
   court I was always drunk so I couldn't really be involved. Now,
   they do sports, I go and I do things at school with them, I do
   their homework with them ... I'm just more available. (48-year-old
   female, graduated FCDC)

Sense of self. Perhaps most importantly, through the drug court process, many of the participants gained self-esteem and a new sense of self. Overall, 20 of the 29 (69%) participants discussed how drug court gave them a renewed and positive perspective on themselves.
   I used to be ugly from the inside out. I thought I was going to be
   a drug addict forever. I didn't really care about my image. I think
   drug court has changed that [image] for me. Now, I want to be
   respected and I want to be trusted. Back then I didn't care if you
   trusted me at all." (34-year-old female, graduated FCDC)

A male participant recalled how drug court created a new life perspective:
   Before dmg court, if you asked [the behavioral health counselor)
   she would have told you I had a little attitude ... that I didn't
   care about nothin', and I didn't want to work on myself ... But
   that all changed quickly because drag court was a positive
   experience. It changed me completely. [Drug court] changed my life
   and taught me how to live. (25-year-old male, graduated FCDC)


As discussed in the life course literature, turning points are often preceded by challenging conditions and turning points must be long enough for a new trajectory to be established (Abbott, 1997; Sampson & Laub, 2003). Drug court meets these conditions, and as found in the literature, drug court participants are less likely to recidivate than nonparticipants (Belenko, 2001; Gottfredson et al., 2003; Wilson et al., 2006). Additionally, through the 24-month process, drug court creates new life skills that may positively alter the trajectory of the participant. While the participants always had the ability to have positive relationships and self-worth in the past, it is clear many did not. Drug court allows many of the personal and interpersonal relationships the time to bloom and grow. As conveyed by the many participants of this study, drug court helped facilitate turning points in their lives. In particular, female participants of the study more frequently noted that drug court facilitated turning points compared to their male counterparts. Roberts and Wolfer (2011) also found women drug court participants experienced increased self-image and improved relationships with loved ones.

As a condition of the FCDC, and most other drug courts, participants are required to make progress toward earning a GED, acquiring or reacquiring their driver's license, and apply for or obtain a job (Huddleston, 2005). Failure to meet these objectives or make substantial progress toward meeting these goals equates to failing the program and often a trip to state prison. If not for drug court, it is unlikely the participants would have achieved these goals. These self-improvement goals themselves can lead to larger turning points at a later date further altering the criminal trajectory. Earning a GED opens up more job opportunities. A driver's license allows one greater access to job opportunities and having gainful employment may increase prosocial behavior, social control, and greater life stability (Graham & Bowling, 1995; Sampson & Laub, 2003; Shover, 1996; Uggen, 2000; Vaillant & Vaillant, 1981). The participants of this study consistently noted how drug court forced them into acquiring these self-improvement skills. With these new talents acquired through drug court, many participants were able to enhance their prosocial behaviors, even those who failed drug court. As noted in the life course theory literature, getting married, having kids, or acquiring a job do not automatically eliminate recidivism for all, but many do find these changes to reduce recidivism and increase prosocial behaviors (Sampson & Laub, 2003)

While the self-improvement component of drug court might be the most coerced, as participants are required to obtain or attempt to acquire GEDs, drivers' licenses, and search for jobs, it should be noted that in all three categories, women were more likely to achieve these goals than their male counterparts. According to the National Women's Law Center (2007), nationally, the drop-out rate for high school girls is 25% and 26% in California. Perhaps more women entering FCDC did not have a high school diploma or GED. Similarly, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (2013), female arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) have more than doubled since 1989. Perhaps more women entering FCDC had been convicted of a DUI and lost their drivers' license. As noted in Table 3, women were also more likely to mention that drug court helped make possible improved relationships with children, family, and increased their self-worth. A woman with a new motivation to help support family and children as well as having a new outlook on life might also be more interested in acquiring the tools (a GED, a driver's license, and a job) to help make those goals a reality.

As is understandable, a history of drug use often frays familial relationships (Curran et al., 1998; Dawson et al., 2006). While drug court does not mandate participants to revitalize these relationships, many family associations are improved through the drug court processes. Drug court provides the participants with a firm, tangible, and trusted affirmation of their desire to eliminate drugs from their lives. As witnessed in the participants' vignettes above, drug court provided the opportunity to pursue a turning point to mend family connections. By participating in drug court, instead of relying on a promise, the offenders are able to demonstrate through their actions they are interested in pursuing a life without drug use. Without the backdrop of drug court to help solidify the participants' actions, it is possible many families would be unlikely to reengage with their loved ones due to past disappointments associated with "all talk and no action."

Of the six themes to arise from the data, drug court facilitating better relationships with the participants' families was the only category where, proportionately, men found greater benefit than women. Perhaps part of the explanation of this finding is the male participants, on average, had 17 years of drug use compared to 13 years for female participants. Four additional years of use provides more opportunities for distressed relationships, which also leaves more chances to improve beleaguered associations. Simply put, compared to the women of the sample, the men may have had worse preexisting relationships with their families, therefore, drug court facilitated a greater opportunity to improve those connections.

Similar to drug use harming family relationships, relationships between drug using adults and their children are also damaged as well (Dawson et al., 2012; Jessup et al., 2014). In this study, the participants emphasized drug court allowed them to reconnect with their children. As discussed by the offenders, the participation in drug court was often the catalyst for the rekindling of a parent/child connection. For many of the participants, rebuilding bonds with their children was deeply satisfying and contributed to a sense of accomplishment. Many of the offenders expressed a feeling of failure in regard to parenting and the sense of shame associated with that failure. Through their participation in drug court, with its mandated policies and procedures, many offenders were able to slowly reengage in the lives of their children.

In regard to drug court facilitating turning points, the greatest disparity between male and female participants was the subject of improved relationships with children. Of the nine participants who discussed drug court facilitating a better-quality association, seven were women (see Table 3). In this study, 80% of men and 84% of women had children, so both groups had relatively the same chance to have healthier relationships with their children. Closer inspection of the data reveals 58% of female participants have children living in the home, compared to only 30% of male participants. The increase in interactions between child and parent when the parent is sober might also lead to a revitalization of the relationship. Perhaps children witnessing the validity of the parental sobriety attempt led to an increase of trust between the two parties. In all seven of the interviews provided by the women, they talked at length about being able to "be there" for their children. Sobriety, facilitated by drug court, allowed the women the chance to be a responsible parent again, which in turn improved the relationship with their children.

Overall, a majority of participants explained how drug court was able to positively enhance their self-image. As seen in Table 1, the average age of first drug use was 14 years old, and almost all participants had been abusing drugs for years, if not decades, and as a result many described themselves as "disgusting," "worthless," or "hopeless." The participants had consistently disappointed themselves, children, family, supervisors, and others for so long they felt they could never recover. Involvement in drug court programming required the participants to recommit to a drug free lifestyle, thus creating a turning point and facilitating the feeling of a new sense of self.

This finding also revealed a dramatic difference between male and female participants. A full three quarters (75%) of the female respondents addressed how drug court facilitated a turning point in their self-worth. Based on the previous data, this finding is perhaps more easily explained. In addition to gaining sobriety, women were more likely to earn GEDs, acquire drivers' licenses, secure employment, and reestablish relationships with their children. An increased self-worth is a logical extension of accomplishing these goals.

While some, if not many, might be coerced into enrolling into drug court, that does not necessarily minimize drug court's ability to facilitate turning points. These interviews occurred years after the participants' involvement in drug court, so the coercive factor, if it was ever present, is balanced by hindsight. Furthermore, drug court might mandate attending meetings, GED acquisition, and counseling sessions; however, drug court does not require improved familial relationships, better parenting, or increased self-worth.


This study adds drug court as a new event to expand life course theory. Life course theory has been used by several scholars to try and explain the desistance of criminal activity (Elder, 1986; Rutter et al., 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1990, 1993). Typically, these scholars have discussed the major events in one's life, such as marriage, employment, and parenthood as turning points away from a criminal lifestyle (Cullen et al., 2006; Elder, 1986; Rutter et al., 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1990, 1993, 2003, 2005). Missing from this discussion is the, perhaps artificial, turning point facilitated by one's participation in drug court. The term artificial is used because drug court is usually a mandated option for the offender or, if not mandated, generally a preferred option over an immediate state prison sentence (Patten et al., 2014). Comparatively, marriage, employment, and parenthood are decisions made with free will. This study demonstrates regardless of how one arrives at these events, drug court can viably be considered a turning point facilitator.

Similarly, for an event to be considered a turning point, the occasion should be preceded by troubling or challenging circumstances that illustrate an individual's character and the length of time on a new trajectory must be long enough that it is apparent the course has changed (Abbott, 1997; Denzin, 1989). Drug court fits both of those criteria. By its definition, drug court is preceded by troubling and challenging circumstances that have exemplified one's character. Additionally, research has also demonstrated that participants of drug court experience lower recidivism than those who do not (Belenko, 2001; Gottfredson et al., 2003; Shaffer, 2011; Wilson et al., 2006). As an example to highlight this fact, a previous evaluation of the 2004-2005 FCDC cohort revealed offenders were rearrested 24% of the time within 5 years of their drug court participation. Additionally, 11 of the 29 participants of this study (38%) were rearrested within 4 years of their involvement in this research. (5) While a recidivism rate of 38% might seem high, to provide some context, the 3-year recidivism rate for drug offenders released from California State Prisons was almost two thirds higher at 63% (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2011). Additionally, other turning points research has demonstrated recidivism rates of 54% for those moving to new neighborhoods (Kirk, 2012) and recidivism rates of over 20% for those finding employment (Uggen & Staff, 2001), so a recidivism rate of 38% in this study is not unusual. Furthermore, past research has also reaffirmed that drug court participants have lower recidivism rates compared to nondrug court participants (Shaffer, Hartman, & Listwan, 2009; Shannon, Jackson, Perkins, & Neal, 2014). Ultimately, drug court cannot make an offender alter his or her behavior, but drug court can facilitate turning points if the offender chooses to capitalize on the opportunities provided.

The offenders' own words bolster the idea drug court helps facilitate turning points. Through their participation in drug court, many were able to earn a GED, acquire or reacquire their driver's licenses, and obtain gainful employment. Often times, in the eyes of family members and children, participation in drug court also legitimated the offenders' attempts to become clean and sober. The rigors of drug court urinalysis, counseling, and other forms of social control demonstrated to others a desire to shed the substance use and past criminal behavior. Even if drug court was a mandated option for the offenders, ultimately their participation in drug court often led to constructive lives afterward.

For many participants, drug court delivered the beginning of a new chance at life. As an example, the average length of sobriety for offenders in this study after drug court was 44 months. For individuals with a lifetime of drug use, 44 months of sobriety was once considered unattainable. The vignettes of participants reinforce the new trajectory of their lives due to their involvement in drug court. Participants talk of "getting their lives back," "finding themselves," and "changing their lives" all through engaging in drug court.

There are some limitations with this study. Only participants of one drug court were sampled and many of those involved in the study had successfully completed dmg court. The sample was compiled through a mix of convenience and snowball sampling. Given the transiency of the drug court population, this limitation is understandable and does not negate or minimize the findings. While 83% of the participants had graduated from drug court, several of the unsuccessful offenders still noted how drug court was a positive experience, but their drug addiction was too powerful to fully appreciate the services being offered by drug court. Other studies have also shown noncompleting drug court participants found their drug court experience to be satisfactory (Fulkerson et al., 2012) and their participation in drug court boosted familial relationships (Francis & Abel, 2014), so concerns of a biased sample are muted. Furthermore, marriage, employment, becoming a parent, and/or any other turning points in life course theory does not necessarily eliminate criminality or recidivism for all (Kirk, 2012; Sampson & Laub, 2003; Uggen & Staff, 2001). The fact that some participants reoffend does not exclude drug court from being considered a turning point facilitator. Future research can examine the drug court/tuming point concept with larger samples or samples from urban areas to substantiate or refute addition to the theory.

DOI: 10.1177/0091450916632545


The authors wish to thank the FCDC workgroup for all of their assistance. This manuscript was greatly improved due to the helpful insight and dedication of the editorial staff and three anonymous reviewers.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The authors received financial support for the research from the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects and from the Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at California State University, Chico.


(1.) Foothill County is a pseudonym.

(2.) Foothill County is a member of the Rural County Representatives of California and a member of the California State Rural Flealth Association. In addition, Foothill County is one of the top walnut and almond producing counties in California.

(3.) To respect the participants' personal privacy, the letters were addressed by the Foothill County Probation Department (FCPD) and mailed using their envelopes, but the letters themselves were typed on California State University, Chico, letterhead.

(4.) Even though 66% of this sample are female, on average, over the last 10 years, the typical women's population of the FCDC has been about 60%, so concerns about oversampling women are minimized.

(5.) Recidivism was measured as an arrest in Foothill County.


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Author Biographies

Sarah Messer is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Administration in the Political Science Department at California State University, Chico. Her research interests include drug courts, community corrections, the impact of AB 109 on county departments, and sexual assault outreach and education on college campuses. She has previously co-authored research on rural drug courts and offender motivation to participate.

Ryan Patten is the associate dean for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the California State University, Chico. His research focuses on drug courts, community corrections home visits, game wardens, and the impacts of AB 109 legislation on California county criminal justice agencies. He is also a co-author of Hunting for "Dirtbags": Why Cops Over-Police the Poor and Racial Minorities (Northeastern University Press). He earned his PhD in criminal justice from Washington State University.

Kimberlee Candela works as a client rights advocate for Disability Rights California in the Far Northern Regional Center. After earning her Juris Doctorate from Hastings College of the Law, she clerked at the California Supreme Court and then served as a trial lawyer in the Alameda County Public Defender's Office for a dozen years. She is also a former instructor in the Political Science Department of California State University, Chico.

Sarah Messer [1], Ryan Patten [2], and Kimberlee Candela [3]

[1] California State University, Chico, CA, USA

[2] College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, California State University, Chico, CA, USA

[3] Far Northern Regional Center, Disability Rights California, Chico, CA, USA

Received September 10, 2015. Accepted for publication January 24, 2016.

Corresponding Author:

Ryan Patten, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, California State University, Chico, 400 W. 1st Street, Butte Hall 701, Chico, CA 95926, USA.

Table 1. Interview Questions.

1. What was your reaction when you were first assigned to drug court?
   a. Did you feel ready to be done using? How so?

2. Describe your first few months in the court.

3. Which parts of drug court was most helpful to you? Explain.

4. What parts of drug court didn't help or even got in your way?

5. Personal change/growth:
   a. Describe your life before and after drug court.
   b. In what ways did your life change, if any, after drug court?
   c. Did your participation in drug court make you feel differently
      about yourself?
      i. If yes, why do you think your participation in drug court
         made you feel differently about yourself? Please describe.
   d. Did drug court provide you with different ways to handle
      i. If yes, how?

6. Sobriety:
   a. How is maintain sobriety going?
   b. Do you go to 12-step meetings? How regularly? Why?
   c. What do you do to maintain sobriety?
   d. Do you currently access resources that you learned about in
      drug court? Which ones? How are they helpful?

7. Children:
   a. Describe your current relationship with your children
      (if applicable).
   b. Did you and your children go through dependency court
      at all?
      i. If yes, how did that experience affect your
   c. Did drug court have an influence in your relationship
      with your kids?
      i. If yes, why do you think your relationships changed?

8. Key relationships in your life (spouse/parents/siblings):
   a. How did your relationships with family and loved ones
      change, before and after drug court, if at all?
       i. If yes, why do you think your relationships changed?
      ii. How do you feel about those changes?

9. Other than what has been discussed, what else would you like
to tell us about your experience in drug court?

Table 2. The Gender Influence of Drug Court Turning Points.

         Earned a General
         Education               Earned a
         Development             Driver's
         (GED) Certificate       License

         Yes         No          Yes         No

         f     %     f     %     f     %     f     %

Male     2     29    8     36    4     27    6     43
Female   5     71    14    64    11    73    8     57

                                 Experienced a
                                 More Positive
         Acquired                Relationship With
         a Job                   Their Family

         Yes         No          Yes         No

         f     %     f      %     f     %     f     %

Male     5     31    5     38     9    45     1    11
Female   11    69    8     62    1 1   55     8    89

         Experienced a
         More Positive           Experienced
         Relationship With       an Increase in
         Their Children          Self-Respect

         Yes         No          Yes         No

          f     %     f     %     r     %     f     %

Male      2    22     8    40     5    25     5    56
Female    7    78    12    60    15    75     4    44

Table 3. Participant Demographics.


     FCDC         Sex         Race

                               Non-    Yes
     No     M     F    White   White

f    24     5     10    19     27       2
%    83     17    34    66     93       7

     Age of the        Drug of
     Interviewee       Choice
     (in Years)

     High   Low   X    Meth   Other

f     55    24    37    21      8
%                       72     28

     Age of First      Length of
     Drug Use          Tenure in
     (in Years)        FCDC (in Months)

     High  Low    X    High  Low    X

f    26     6    13    46    16    28

     Length of Time
     Since Completion/Length of Most Recent
     termination in   Stint of Sobriety
     FCDC (in Months) (in Months)

     High   Low   X   High    Low   X

f    107    12    34  120      3    42

Note. FCDC = Foothill County Drug Court.
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Author:Messer, Sarah; Patten, Ryan; Candela, Kimberlee
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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