Court Chat: Enhancing Employment for Treatment Court Participants

Join advocate and 2014 treatment court graduate Carrie McCoy as she explores the benefits of enhancing employment opportunities for treatment court participants, and how employers can improve the hiring process to overcome systemic barriers to employment for individuals in recovery. This edition of Court Chat is proudly presented by the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Initiative (REDI) at American University, in Washington, DC.

Veterans Treatment Courts: Uplifting Programs and Participants with the RED Tool

A VTC graduate is presented with a handmade quilt upon his program graduation in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Wright, Angeli. “The Frame: Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court Graduation.” The Asheville Citizen Times, January 25, 2018.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of those who served in our armed forces, it is timely to bring awareness to the countless number of veterans across the country who struggle with mental illness and substance use disorders (SUDs), often stemming directly from their time in combat, which can cause those who served their country to find themselves in the crosshairs of the legal system and even incarceration. Since 2004, veteran treatment courts (VTCs) have used a multi-disciplinary team of professionals from courts, community corrections, treatment agencies, and social service organizations to address veterans’ SUDs and mental health issues, with the purpose of eliminating criminal behavior.

A recent report by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, published in 2016, estimates that 107,400 veterans were incarcerated in state or federal prison at the time, and that about 8% of all state prisoners and 5% of federal prisoners were veterans. Furthermore, a 2017 study by the Social Psychiatry and Psychological Epidemiology Journal found that about a third of the United States’ 19 million veterans report having been incarcerated at least once.

Veterans are in a uniquely vulnerable position to developing SUDs, especially due to their susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition that can occur as a result of exposure to extreme trauma. PTSD has been shown to be a significant risk factor for veterans in terms of developing SUDs, with the US Department of Veterans Affairs reporting that more than a fifth of veterans with PTSD also experience SUD, while nearly a third of veterans seeking treatment for SUD experience PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD, which usually manifest within 3 months of a triggering event or series of events, are numerous, and can involve flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of triggering thoughts, objects, or situations, depression, and memory loss. It is the intensity of these symptoms and a desire to mitigate them that often leads veterans to develop SUDs and therefore an increased risk of involvement in the criminal justice system, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Racial and Ethnic Disparities Initiative (REDI) at American University (AU) is proud to work with VTCs across the country, using the Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) Program Assessment Tool (RED tool) to identify and rectify instances of RED in their programs. Between 2020 and 2023, 14 VTCs from Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin completed the RED tool. These VTCs’ participation resulted in the accumulation of vital information about the operations of these VTCs, and the services they provide veteran participants. For example, 100% of the VTC respondents reported having at least one Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialist on staff. This is a critical data point, as VJO specialists are instrumental in identifying veterans who could benefit from VTCs and connecting these veterans with the services they need. VJO specialists operate within communities, as an extension of the local justice system, to provide direct outreach and assessment services to veterans that have come in frequent contact with law enforcement, often called “justice-involved veterans.”

The results of the RED Program Assessment Tool also demonstrated that 100% of the VTC respondents reported having their eligibility requirements for program participation in writing. This may seem like a minor detail, but in fact having VTCs with written clear, objective eligibility requirements is critical to mitigating bias in the admissions process and improving participant access, particularly veterans from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

However, there is always room for improvement, and the results of the RED Program Assessment Tool demonstrated that VTCs are no exception. For example, even though 100% of  the VTC respondents reported having their eligibility requirements in writing, only 57% of those courts reported sharing a copy of those written eligibility requirements with all referral sources. Referrals can come from a variety of sources, such as judges, the VA, defense attorneys, VTC staff, and even friends and family of the veteran experiencing SUDs. If clear and objective written eligibility requirements are not distributed to all possible referral sources, outreach to potential VTC participants becomes difficult. It is crucial that all referral sources receive concrete guidance on who is eligible for VTC programs, which can then increase program referrals. By creating more accessible community resources such as flyers, updated websites, or maintaining a strong connection with the local VA, outreach of accurate and relevant information to these referral sources can be maximized.

By using the RED tool to identify where there are instances of RED in their programming and utilizing REDI’s educational resources for guidance on next steps, VTCs are empowered to ensure that their veterans from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are receiving the support they need. VTCs play a critical role in promoting the racial equity of their programming, which can be improved through many avenues such as: implementing culturally intuitive policies, promoting open dialogue, and emphasizing resources for mental health issues and SUDs are only a handful of examples of this.

This Veteran’s Day and every Veteran’s Day, it is important to recognize all of those who have served our country, especially those who are struggling with SUDs or mental health. Whether you are a veteran experiencing SUD or mental health issues, working with veterans, or simply a  community member invested in the rehabilitation process, learning more about VTCs can be an important first step in supporting the vital work they do. The REDI recognizes the importance of uplifting VTCs and their participants, and is committed to improving VTC programming by identifying and helping to eliminate instances of RED.

Be sure to check out the REDI’s website to learn more about the RED Program Assessment Tool and our mission.

Revelations from a Research Article on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Treatment Courts

I’m excited to announce the publication of the article Color in the Court: Using the Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) Program Assessment Tool to Promote Equitable and Inclusive Treatment Court Practice published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. This study was conducted by a team from American University (AU) and Morgan State University (MSU). This commentary will provide a concise summary of the article’s key findings and implications for treatment courts. 

Instead of the typical punitive model in the criminal legal system, treatment courts address the root causes of substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders that often lead to incarceration or other forms of involvement in crime. Treatment courts have gained traction for their restorative and rehabilitative approaches. These courts reduce criminal recidivism rates, assist people on a path of recovery, and save communities money.

Nonetheless, it’s vital to acknowledge and address the racial and ethnic disparities that exist within the criminal legal system, including treatment courts. This is where the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Program Assessment tool (RED Tool)  plays a vital role in rectifying RED in treatment courts. The RED tool provides a comprehensive evaluation of RED in treatment courts to promote equity and inclusion within courts. The tool narrows in on distinct goals as part of its foundational design, which includes raising awareness about RED, highlighting existing inequities within courts, and offering recommendations on alleviating racial and ethnic inequities in programs. The tool sorts data into 8 different sections allowing for a thorough analysis of treatment court practices. 

The sample for this study consisted of about 13% of treatment courts in a Midwestern state. Below are several key findings from the study.

  • The completion rates reveal that minoritized participants, including African American, Biracial, and Hispanic participants had completion rates of less than 30%. In contrast to their White counterparts, who attained a completion rate of 64.9%.
  • Data from the study suggests that only 37% of courts have reviewed their graduation rates to examine disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. 
  • On the topic of mandatory training, only 6% of courts required staff to complete cultural competency training. 
  • Further data reveals that merely 47% of courts agreed with the statement, “our team is racially and ethnically diverse.”
  • Within this study, it’s important to note that none of the treatment courts mentioned racial equity within their mission statements.

For more findings, please read the full article here

There is no doubt that treatment courts work, however, there is always room for growth. When treatment courts complete the RED tool and implement its recommendations, they should see improvements in access, retention, and overall program satisfaction for minoritized participants, which should lead to participants finding their path to recovery. According to SAMHSA, National Recovery Month is celebrated each September to promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices. We want to thank the treatment court professionals involved in providing prevention and treatment. Lastly, we celebrate those who are moving forward on their recovery journey.

Rectifying Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) in Treatment Courts  

Treatment courts are working and there’s evidence to support it. A drug treatment court is a judicially supervised court docket that provides a sentencing alternative to incarceration for people facing drug charges and who have substance use disorders. Treatment courts support clients through recovery using judicial oversight and evidence-based treatments, reduce the likelihood of participants committing new crimes, and save communities money. However, some treatment courts have experienced racial and ethnic disparities (RED), with minoritized individuals having differential access to programs, as well as completing programs at a lesser rate than their white counterparts.  

To assist treatment courts in understanding and examining disparities in their programs, faculty and staff at American University’s (AU) School of Publics Affairs (SPA) along with subject matter experts in the field developed the Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) Program Assessment Tool (RED tool). The RED tool is a web-based assessment designed to examine treatment courts’ policies and procedures to determine where racial and ethnic disparities (RED) may exist in programs. It’s been four years since the RED tool was launched. During this time, over 150 treatment courts have completed the assessment. 

After completing the RED tool, some treatment courts were trying to figure out the next steps for their court to address equity and inclusion issues. Hearing the need for next steps motivated a team at AU to apply for funding to do a deeper dive with courts on RED issues. In 2022, having heard the same calls from the field, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) opened a solicitation to fund exactly this type of innovation in programming. The team at AU led by Preeti Menon and Zephi Francis, along with partners at Florida State University, Morgan State University,  the University of Central Florida, and Aeon applied for the Field Initiated solicitation and received good news in the fall of 2022. 

BJA awarded the team a grant of $1 million over a period of three years to establish the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Initiative (REDI). Through research, policy development, and training and technical assistance (TTA), REDI will work with treatment courts to understand and reduce disparities in their programs.   

“When Preeti and I found out that we received the award, we were on campus for the first time together since COVID-19 struck. On that day, we were preparing for an in-person documentary screening and panel discussion on the intersection of substance use, mental health issues, and homelessness,” REDI’s Project Director Zephi Francis said. “We knew that this project was going to be a great opportunity for us to continue the work that we both are passionate about, while advancing BJA’s priority of racial equity.”  

With this funding, the REDI team will recruit treatment courts to complete the RED tool, analyze the data, and release guidance on best practices to assist treatment court professionals with decision-making. Another component of REDI entails offering intensive TTA to treatment courts. TTA involves courts participating in multiple virtual sessions with expert faculty to discuss topics identified by the court as priority areas to make their programs more racially and ethnically inclusive. Finally, the REDI team will create online modules for treatment court professionals to learn about best practices and innovative strategies regarding RED.  

May is National Treatment Court Month. It’s a time to celebrate all the good work that treatment courts are doing. The REDI team would also encourage treatment courts to use this month as an opportunity to learn more about the RED tool, and take proactive steps to address any disparities in their programs. 


Dignity in the Court

If I’m home at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, the television is most likely tuned to Judge Mathis.  Greg Mathis is humorous, but a no-nonsense judge who oversees small claims cases in Chicago.  Don’t tell any lawyer, but I feel like I’ve earned an honorary law degree after watching this show for many years.  For many people, television is their only knowledge of the court system.  Although entertaining, these shows aren’t an accurate representation of real courtroom proceedings.  To learn more about the operations of a court, a treatment court specifically, I visited a docket in a Mid-Atlantic state.  Here is what I learned.

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Sending Support for Our Soldiers

 “For the veteran, thank you for bravely doing what you’re called to do so we can safely do what we’re free to do.” – Unknown

VeteransMonthThis month as we celebrate our veterans, we take a moment as a nation to thank the soldiers for their service of ensuring our freedom and safety. We would also like to acknowledge and thank those who continue to support our veterans once they return home.

Our first shout out goes to the Veterans Affairs (VA). Veterans emerging back into civilian life may face several challenges, such as PTSD and substance misuse. VA’s National Center for PTSD created a series of short videos for patients and providers to help recognize the symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).   Continue reading “Sending Support for Our Soldiers”

The Dangerous Oversimplification of Addiction

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Addiction is both a personal health crisis and a public health concern; it wreaks havoc on individual lives and can damage entire communities. The opioid crisis, for example, has led to the deaths of thousands of people, devastated families, and left cities and towns struggling financially from the loss of a workforce. How we understand addiction, therefore, has significant policy implications. The trouble is, addiction is difficult to treat, relapse is common, and there is no scientific rule to explain why any given drinker, user of prescription drugs, or recreational marijuana user becomes dependent or addicted.

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It Could be You

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JPO Student Assistant Karina Rivero

On May 25, the New York Times published an in-depth look at Drug Induced Homicide Laws (DIH), intended to punish people with sentences equivalent to those for manslaughter and murder for providing or purchasing drugs which resulted in an overdose death. Though states started enacting these laws in the 1980s, there has been a gradual increase in their application over the past 15 years. The current opioid crisis has created a trend of legislators and prosecutors passing and utilizing these laws as they search for ways to deter opioid use. After reading the article, I conducted an informal survey on a small group of my friends, family, and significant other. I explained the premise of the laws, which now exist in at least 36 states. Those around me saw the logic, if they were used to punish kingpins of drug trafficking rings. But as the New York Times article pointed out, the sad reality is that these laws are not being used against kingpins. Instead, they are being used to target the family members, friends, and significant others of those who have died from overdoses. I posed the question, “What if I overdosed one Friday night and you got sent to jail for murder?”

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