The Right to Graduate Treatment Court: How Gender-Specific Treatment Plans Are Necessary to Address Graduation Disparities

woman with a pink hat and the text gender equalityOn August 26th Women’s Equality Day is celebrated. Initially chosen in commemoration of the passing of the 19th Amendment that enshrined a woman’s right to vote, Women’s Equality Day has become a yearly celebration of the history of woman’s suffrage as well as a “pledge to continue fighting for equality for women and girls.”[i] In respect of that, this month’s blog post covers some of the issues women face in their experiences within treatment courts.

On average, women account for 32 percent of participants in drug courts, while only accounting for 21  percent of drug arrests compared to men.[ii] However, only 39 percent of female participants in drug courts graduate, compared to the overall graduation rate of 58 percent.[iii] This indicates that while there is an overrepresentation of women entering into treatment court programs compared to their rate of arrest, women are underrepresented in terms of graduation. Addressing gender-specific interventions within treatment courts is a rich area of research and literature, and yet this disparity remains.

Several studies have been conducted with both treatment court practitioners and women who have been in court programs and highlighted a number of specific barriers to graduation. As one provider notes, a significant number of women who entered into treatment court programs had suffered from some level of trauma, usually at the hands of a male. When courts do not provide gender divided dockets or counseling groups, there is a substantial risk of female participants developing a feeling of mistrust in the process due to the space feeling unsafe.[iv]

A further study summarized that “women offenders are significantly more likely than men to have coexisting psychiatric disorders, parental stress, housing issues, and extensive history of sexual and physical abuse.”[v] The need for gender specific treatment programs is emboldened by studies showing the beneficial outcomes of women’s only treatment groups compared to mixed gender groups. In the first-year post-treatment, those from women’s only treatment groups were found to have lower levels of arrest and drug treatment participation than those in mixed gender groups, as well as a lower rate of incarceration after 3 years.[vi]

It is exceptionally important for treatment court practitioners to understand the complex issues that are involved with female substance use disorders, and it is crucial that those members who come into contact with female participants are educated on trauma-informed and gender-responsive care. A wealth of resources exist to help treatment court team members become more informed on the issues facing female participants, including a webinar from the National Drug Court Resource Center on this exact topic that readers should watch. The National Drug Court Resource Center, based within the Justice Programs Office located at American University, is the go-to place for drug court practitioners to access a wide variety of resources to make their programs as effective as possible.

Sadly, little research exists with regard to outcomes of non-binary treatment court participants. While we can intuitively assume that levels of experienced trauma are likely to be high among this population, without evidence to indicate where the shortcomings are, it is unclear what needs and disparities are there. Ultimately, much like issues with cis-women, and also with men (who themselves are not immune to traumatic events), it is vital that trauma-informed care and understanding of each individual participant’s needs is the gold standard.

If we, as drug court practitioners, pride ourselves on evidence-based practice and interventions, the need for gender-specific treatment could not be clearer. It is imperative that all treatment courts track participant data and regularly analyze their outcomes to ensure that gender disparity is as limited as possible, and courts must ensure that all interventions are considerate of any participant trauma. Guaranteeing that female participants are as empowered to graduate as our male participants is paramount to the continued success of any treatment court.


[i] “Presidential Proclamation – Women’s Equality Day, 2016,” Obama White House, Accessed July 25, 2019, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/25/presidential-proclamation-womens-equality-day-2016

[ii] Douglas B. Marlowe, Carolyn D. Hardin, and Carson L. Fox, Painting The Current Picture: A National Report on Drug Courts and Other Problem-Solving Courts in the United States (National Drug Court Institute, 2016), 47, https://www.ndci.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Painting-the-Current-Picture-2016.pdf

[iii] Ibid, 49

[iv] Diane S. Morse et al, “Meeting health and psychological needs of women in drug treatment court,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 46, no. 2 (February 2014): 153, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2013.08.017

[v] Nena Messina, Stacy Calhoun and Umme Warda, “Gender-Responsive Drug Court Treatment: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Criminal Justice And Behavior 39, no.12 (December 2012): 1540, https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854812453913

[vi] Yih-Ing Hser, Elizabeth Evans, David Huang, and Nena Messina, “Long-term outcomes among drug-dependent mothers treated in women-only versus mixed-gender programs,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 41, no.2 (September 2011): 119-120, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2011.02.004

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