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Assessing the Causes of Racial Disparities in Drug Courts

News Type College News

In response to the opioid crisis, drug policy has shifted from criminalization toward reform prioritizing drug treatment.

Drug courts that have emerged across the most affected states, including Ohio, resulted in positive impacts on recidivism, drug relapses and cost reductions.

Still, significant racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing outcomes and drug court diversion and participation persist.

A team of researchers, including the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, received a $533,204 grant from the National Institute of Justice to examine 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.

“We are seeing noted disparities related to overdose fatalities among people of color in Ohio, which has been attributed in part to fentanyl adulteration in drugs other than heroin, such as stimulants,” said Glenn College Assistant Professor Tasha Perdue, who is one of the lead investigators on the project. While policy responses support more treatment-oriented approaches, she said, a limited understanding of how this applies to non-opioid drug use has implications for racial and ethnic disparities in health and criminal justice.

“Understanding links between these disparities is critical as overdose risks are elevated following release from incarceration, and we continue to see more punitive criminal justice approaches to people of color who use drugs,” said Perdue, also is an affiliated faculty member with the Moritz College of Law’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.

The combination of quantitative and qualitative data from the research will inform policymakers of the size and scope of the problem, while providing a bottom-up approach to tackling the problem via insights from those with first-hand experience in the drug court system. The researchers will disseminate their findings 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.

The grant is funded by the W.E.B. Du Bois Program of Research on Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System Fellows Program, which supports work that advances policy interventions designed to reduce disparities. Perdue’s colleagues on the project are Alex Fraga, an affiliated senior researcher with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center in Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, and Sadé Lindsay, assistant research professor of public policy and sociology in the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University.

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 to examine how drug courts impact racial disparities in drug sentencing outcomes and whether racial disparities in charging and sentencing decisions produce racially disparate access to drug courts. The team also will investigate how drug court stakeholders perceive racial disparities in admittance to drug court and potential interventions to reduce them.

“This project demonstrates the benefits of mixed methods approaches to policy-related research,” Perdue said. “We have a rich dataset that will allow us to understand racial disparities in sentencing and what these trends have looked like over time. However, the quantitative data tells us whether and to what extent there is a problem, not the cause of the problem, so it only provides a portion of the story. The qualitative portion of the study will allow us to get at the important contextual factors to better answer questions related to why disparities exist and what interventions may alleviate identified disparities.”