Before recently retiring, I spent the last 27 years working for the Missouri Department of Corrections, spending 20 years as the District Administrator in field operations. In 1997, Circuit Judge Jim Eiffert, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Orr, and I started what is now one of the oldest drug courts in Christian County, Missouri. That program will be celebrating 20 years of success at the spring drug court conference in Branson. To say this program has been a success is an understatement. I have had the benefit of watching firsthand the transformation of many lives through the drug court process.
What Is the Most Important Variable in Drug Courts?
Drug courts are different than the normal judicial process. These differences are the reason for its success. Normal court protocol is adversarial in nature with opposing ideals in terms of a desired outcome. In the drug court model, the same players are involved; however, the process is not adversarial; it is collaborative. Instead of each side representing an often incompatible desire, the drug court “team” represents the best interests of the participant (defendant) while maintaining the safety of the community. This team is comprised of the normal players (judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel) with the unique addition of a drug court officer, substance use professionals, and other supporting recovery.
A central and key component of drug courts is the ongoing and frequent drug testing. On average, the drug court participant will provide eight random urinalysis tests per month. Randomization is ensured by the participant calling a toll-free number every day and if “their number” is called, they have a short window of time to provide a urine sample for testing. There is a tremendous amount of research supporting a testing protocol as one of the more critical parts of drug court success. More than the testing alone, testing must also involve credible products, procedures, and individuals.
Initially, testing provides a reason for participants to not use. This is true because of another premise of drug courts: sanctions for noncompliance are swift and sure. The idea of providing an immediate response to behavior is grounded in age-old behavior modification theories. Celerity in drug courts is produced by the frequency of testing, the immediate reporting of results, and the fact that the participant is in court two times per month to face the judge. All of this is dramatically different than normal criminal proceedings.
Just as sanctions are provided quickly to the aberrant behavior, so too are incentives in response to participants who exhibit model behavior. Positive reinforcement occurs in response to long periods of sobriety, maintaining a job, or no positive drug tests. These successes are recognized and rewarded with positive reinforcement. This is critical to long-term behavior change.
The research on drug courts is clear. They work better than traditional criminal justice efforts – a lot better. Many studies tout an approximate 70% success rate! So, what is the key to this success? Is it social-setting therapy? Frequent court appearances? Frequent and random drug testing?
Really, it is all of these. More importantly, it is a complete life change that sustains change forever. That means a change in social circles, a change in attitude, a change in lifestyles, and an overall change in responsibility. In other words, the change results in a new and different person, both internally and externally.
In my 20 years of being involved in drug courts, one thing is predictable. The people who change their entire life, and especially their social circles (friends), are the ones who enjoy lifelong change. There are a good number of individuals that make it through the program but don’t make what I call a “total life change.” In order for most people to sustain long-term change, they must change their friends (and sometimes family), change their jobs, and change their recreational lives. In their old lives, most all of these people and places involved drugs and alcohol. I have seen it firsthand.
The author of this blog is Kerry Nelson, who serves as an Account Executive on the Business Growth team at Tomo. Kerry worked for the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole for 27 years, with more than 20 years of documented excellence and experience in policy analysis, interpreting and applying Missouri statutes, team leadership, and multi-dimensional investigations. At the same time, he was also a treatment court coordinator, where he and others developed and implemented one of the early drug courts in Missouri. As an Adjunct Professor at Missouri State University, Kerry stays abreast of evidence-based practices in community corrections. Kerry has a Masters degree focused in Criminal Justice Administration from Missouri State University.