A Social Work Professor Serves the Court

What’s celebrated in March? In addition to St. Patrick’s Day, Women’s History Month, and National Criminal Justice Month, we also celebrate Social Work Month. In honor of the many contributions social work has made to treatment Photograph of Dr Annecourts, I decided to highlight a person whose work is beneficial to the practices and procedures of treatment courts. Dr. Anne Dannerbeck Janku is an associate research professor at the University of Missouri. For almost two decades, she has conducted research on racial and ethnic disparities in treatment courts.

When Professor Dannerbeck Janku began her career in the late 1990s, preliminary research was indicating that treatment courts were a successful justice intervention. Graduates of drug court programs had a lower recidivism rate than clients under traditional community supervision. Her evaluation of Missouri treatment courts supported this promise of success.

However, anecdotally, Dannerbeck Janku heard people of color in treatment courts weren’t doing as well as their White counterparts and chose to reexamine the data. The data revealed that Caucasians did graduate treatment courts at a higher rate than African-Americans and there were differences between the groups regarding education, employment, drug of choice, and community socioeconomic status. For more information about this project, checkout her article titled Understanding and Responding to Racial Differences in Drug Court Outcomes.     

Studying the nexus of race/ethnicity and treatment courts continued to be a primary area of research for Dannerbeck Janku later in her career. In 2006, she was granted the opportunity to work at the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator.  During this time, she continued to gather data between 2006 and 2018, which highlighted issues related to racial and ethnic disparities. This led the Missouri Association of Treatment Court Professionals to create an equity and inclusion group to review the policies and procedures of the treatment courts (e.g., case referrals and eligibility criteria) to identify racial and ethnic disparities and come up with solutions to eliminate inequities. This group continues to meet on an intermittent basis.

Professor Dannerbeck Janku has three tips to address racial and ethnic disparities in treatment courts:

  • Have a discussion with the entire treatment court team on how decisions are being made in the treatment court and answer some questions:
    • Which cases get referred to treatment court? Are the eligibility requirements negatively impacting/excluding people of color? Teams should decide how decision-making can be modified to make their courts more equitable and accessible to minorities.
  • Do not understate the power of data and statistics:
    • When courts have hard data on a particular racial/ethnic group graduating the treatment court program at a higher rate than another, it’s a wake-up call for the court. The realization of a discrepancy should encourage the treatment court team to decide what more can be done to create higher-quality programming to retain and graduate minority participants.
  • Talk to minority treatment court participants who have been successful in the program:
    • Find out what impact the program had on their lives and the difference it made. Talking with participants also gives the court a chance to find out what worked or did not work for participants/graduates of the program.  This information enables treatment courts to adjust program operations.

The Justice Programs Office believes that social work professionals who study racial and ethnic disparities in treatment courts should be celebrated every day. March is the time we give special thanks for their attempts to create a fairer criminal justice system. Race/ethnicity matters and should not be ignored. We encourage treatment courts to examine their program by completing the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Program Assessment Tool (to be released later this year) to identify where racial and ethnic disparities may exist in their system and processes and then make appropriate changes to alleviate disparities.