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SAMHSA News - March/April, Volume 14, Number 2

Incarceration vs. Treatment: Drug Courts Help Substance Abusing Offenders (Part 2)

Adult Drug Courts

One of drug courts' defining characteristics is the effort to change the relationship between the offender and the judicial system, said Mr. Robertson. "Drug courts change the adversarial relationships that are typically found in judicial settings into team partnerships where everybody's pulling together," he explained.

That transformation is apparent in the Gosnold Barnstable Action for New Directions (BAND) Drug Court Program in Barnstable County, MA, which received a 3-year CSAT grant in 2002.

When offenders enter the program, there's an entire team working with the judge to make sure that offenders get the treatment they need. In addition to the judge, the team includes case managers, treatment providers, the public defender, a police officer, and representatives from the probation department and district attorney's office.

Any team member—or the offender's attorney—can refer a nonviolent offender to the program once that person is facing incarceration. The team reviews the person's criminal record, substance abuse problem, and circumstances, and then refers those deemed eligible to the district attorney, who gets the final say.

Once they're in, participants begin a yearlong, three-phase treatment program. To move from one phase to the next, they must meet certain criteria, such as having negative drug tests, participating in treatment, or getting a job. If they don't meet these criteria, they face sanctions ranging from more frequent drug tests or more intensive treatment to an electronic ankle "bracelet" or weekends in jail.

In the meantime, case managers help participants tackle other problems in their lives. Case managers enroll participants in public insurance programs and find them primary care physicians. They help participants enroll in educational programs, write résumés or fill out job applications, and sometimes drive participants to job interviews. The team has even persuaded local health clubs to offer memberships.

The program also has a cultural enrichment component. "These folks are alienated from the community by nature of their criminality," said Project Director Raymond V. Tamasi, M.Ed., Chief Executive Officer of Gosnold, Inc. "We're trying to reconnect—or connect—people to the community."

Along with the judge and members of the drug court team, participants enjoy quarterly visits to the local art museum, the symphony, and community theater. "The judge doesn't have his robes on and isn't sitting behind a bench," Mr. Tamasi noted. "We're just members of an audience watching a performance together."

So far, the team's approach seems to be working. In one study, for example, the team examined the program's effect on the first 50 participants. A total of 29 of them completed treatment in what was then an 18-month program. In the 2 years before joining the program, the total number of arrests for these 29 participants was 76. Two years after they entered the program, the number of arrests had dropped to 8.

There's a side benefit, too, Mr. Tamasi explained. As participants and team members speak to civic groups and local television program viewers, their stories of transforming themselves from tax-users to taxpayers are chipping away at the stigma attached to addiction. "Now we're starting to hear people say that putting certain people in prison just doesn't work," he said.

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Family Drug Courts

While adult and juvenile drug courts serve individuals who have committed a wide range of crimes, family drug courts target a more specific population—parents whose substance abuse has put them at risk of losing custody of their children.

Unlike adult and juvenile courts, where the focus is on the offender, family drug courts focus on the offenders' children.

"The objective of family drug courts is to find solutions that are in the best interests of the child," explained Mr. Robertson of CSAT. "The purpose of the courts is to find ways to alleviate the problems that exist and make it possible for parents to bring their children back into their homes. Our goal is to keep those children from having to go into foster care or into permanent custody with other families—unless that's what's best for the child."

Family drug courts, he explained, help achieve that goal by eliminating the parental substance abuse that puts parents at risk of losing their children to the state. Compliance with the drug court program can greatly increase parents' chances of getting their children back, Mr. Robertson said.

The Steuben County Family Court Treatment Enhancement Project offers an example. The project received a 3-year CSAT grant in 2002 and is now in a no-cost extension period.

Located in the town of Bass in rural upstate New York, the court serves parents—primarily mothers—who have been charged with neglect of their children due primarily to a substance abuse problem. "For example, they've overdosed," explained Judge Peter C. Bradstreet, J.D. "or they've driven in their car with their children while intoxicated."

When a neglect petition is filed, the family drug court coordinator screens the petition to see if substance abuse is a factor. When it is, the person is eligible for family drug court.

Participants undergo treatment for substance abuse and any mental health issues, while family care workers monitor their progress during home visits. The family drug court program even provides transportation if needed.

In the early stages, participants come before the judge each week. "If I'm hearing that the person doesn't have a good attitude in treatment or won't talk in group therapy, I'll ask them about it when they come before me," Judge Bradstreet said.

The family drug court team meets weekly to discuss participants' progress. Throughout, the team keeps the children's perspective in mind. For example, if a team member suggests cutting back visits with children as punishment for some violation, someone might ask how the children will feel about it and suggest alternative sanctions.

Family drug courts offer several advantages, said Project Director Michael J. Magnani, J.D., Director of the Division of Grants and Program Development at the New York State Unified Court System in Manhattan. They allow much more informed decision-making, because the drug court team thoroughly explores what's going on with parents and children. They allow much quicker decision-making. And there's greater accountability.

"In a traditional court, the judge may tell the person to get some sort of treatment, but it's up to the parent to actually do that," said Mr. Magnani. "By and large, these cases kick around forever."

For Judge Bradstreet, the evidence that the family drug court model works is apparent in the faces of its graduates and their children.

"The parents just look so much better than they did when they first appeared in the court months earlier," Judge Bradstreet noted. "There's a remarkable difference. They've got smiles, bright eyes, healthy-looking skin."

Even more gratifying are the comments from participants' children, who are often invited to speak at the graduation ceremonies. "They say things like, ‘Thank you for giving me my mother back,' " said Judge Bradstreet.

For more information about drug courts, visit the SAMHSA Web site or visit the NADCP Web site at

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