From the main stage at All Rise 2023, the largest ever gathering of treatment court professionals, participants and supporters, Doug Marlowe, Senior Scientific Consultant for All Rise (formerly NADCP), told the 5000 or so people in the room that, as a field, treatment courts have failed to address disparities in treatment courts. Over the course of the field’s 30-year history, report after report (including our research from this year), has shown that treatment court participants are predominantly white, and that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals graduate at half the rate (or worse) of their white counterparts.
Twenty-four hours later at the conference, an audience member in our session, who had been working with treatment courts since the late 90s bemoaned this same fact in response to our report on the statewide data we’d collected, “why do we keep gathering data” he asked, we don’t need more data, we need to fix this problem of disparities in courts. In a country with a 400-year history of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, it’s hard to stomach the reality that treatment courts, with our innovative approaches and individualized case planning, are at best not helping address disparities, and at worst, might be upholding them.
But part of the reason we keep telling courts to collect and analyze their racial and ethnic disparities (RED) data is that for 30 years many treatment courts have been bad at it. We do have national or state level reports, but they don’t tell us what’s happening in your court, and more importantly, the high-level data in national reports doesn’t capture the nuance of why people aren’t getting accepted into the program, what’s happening to them on their treatment court journey, and what’s stopping them from graduating.
I agree with the audience member from the conference (and I did tell him so personally), we don’t necessarily need more national data, but we do need courts to track and analyze their RED data regularly. There’s a reason the Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standard Two exists and stands alone, racial equity in courts does not just happen, we must pay attention to it, track data on it, and respond when we see inequalities and disparities. Not regularly and systematically tracking data on disparities is a violation of Standard Two (to paraphrase Dr. Marlowe).
So, if we want to take that warning seriously, what should we be paying attention to? We want to know about the people in the program, but what about those who didn’t make it? Are Black people excluded because their criminal history, where-as white people aren’t? Are Black and Brown men overwhelmingly opting for jail instead of the program while white people are 50/50? Are there specific requirements that are tripping up some folks and not others. Our colleague Anne Dannerbeck-Janku found that requiring participants to have a full-time job to graduate was impeding Black participants graduation much more than white participants. There are several of potential reasons for this, and I don’t have any concrete answers, but we know from employment and hiring research that it is easier for a white man who went to prison to get a job than for a black man with no criminal history to get the same job, so that may have been part of it. This doesn’t mean you should throw out the requirement to have a job completely (as a job is great for both maintaining recovery and reducing future crime), but are there ways to make it more equitable?
The data is the start to a conversation, what phases are people dropping out of / getting stuck in, are there patterns by race or ethnicity, are there consistent reasons participants give during exit interviews for their success (or lack thereof)? We are often beaten over the head with graduation data, but looking for disparities in your programs starts much earlier than that, who is in (and why), who is out (and why), who is dropping out in phases 1 or 2 (and why), etc. There might not be easy answers, but that’s where experts from American University can come in to support you and think about what your data might mean.
If you want to start a conversation with us about how to collect, and understand, data on disparities in your program, reach out to us today at firstname.lastname@example.org