During spring and summer 2004, focus groups were conducted among the participants and court staff in three New York State drug courts. The research was designed to provide feedback about drug court operations and to assist programs by examining the extent to which participants and staff hold comparable views about various aspects of the drug court experience. In other words, do drug court participants and court staff see eye-to-eye?
At each court, participant sessions were followed by focus groups and interviews among court staff. Participants and staff discussed a variety of topics: why participants enter and remain in drug court, views about the drug court program and staff, which components of be the program are more and less effective, the courtroom experience, and suggestions to improve the program.
Motivating the project was a recognition that drug courts are likely to be most effective when those operating programs are fully cognizant of the attitudes and experiences of program participants. Drug court staff and participants will, of course, have areas of agreement and disagreement. But it is crucial for staff to be aware of how their perceptions and attitudes might differ from participants’ so that they can most effectively manage those differences, deliver the drug court intervention, and identify areas for continuous improvement.
To ensure the anonymity of research participants, the drug courts are not individually identified in the report, which can be read in its entirety here. The report focuses on common themes and findings that emerged across sites.
Drug court participants and court staff generally do see eye-to-eye. In all three courts, staff were remarkably cognizant about why participants enter drug court, what they do and do not like about it, and what motivates them to remain clean and in the program. The research also made clear that these courts, to varying degrees, regularly elicit feedback from program participants and take that feedback into account when shaping policies and procedures. Staff members’ knowledge of and concern for the participant perspective likely explains in part participants’ positive impressions of the staff.
More detailed findings are below.
- Participants enter drug court primarily to avoid prison, not to enter treatment and get off drugs. Although some said that their opportunity to enter drug court happened at the “right time” when they wanted to enter treatment, the overwhelming majority of participants acknowledged that they entered drug court mainly to avoid going to prison. Most also felt that, although the program is nominally voluntary, they had little choice but to enter drug court—prison is viewed as an unattractive alternative. Many participants did concede that their motivation changed after being in the program for some time, and they became more concerned about completing treatment, staying clean, and improving their lives.
- Many participants do not fully appreciate what they are agreeing to when they enter drug court. Most drug court participants reported that the rules and expectations of drug court were explained to them, but it was not until they spent some time in the program and began treatment that they fully understood what they had gotten into—intensive supervision and monitoring. Drug court staff members were aware of this, and reported that they make numerous attempts to make it clear to participants what they are agreeing to at program entry. They were also aware that participants are likely to be resistant early on and that it takes time for them to adjust to the program.
- Most participants believe the rules of drug court are fair. Most participants reported that the rules of drug court are fair and felt that they are treated fairly by the treatment court team. They spoke particularly favorably about how the judge and others take participants’ “personal situations” into account when making decisions such as sanctions and phase advancement. This knowledge about participants’ lives, and capacity to use it to craft personalized responses, appears to add to drug court participants’ perceptions of procedural justice.
- Defense attorneys were not perceived as important to drug court. Many participants complained about what they felt was their defense attorneys’ lack of involvement in their case. Once again, staff members appeared aware of these concerns. Some seemed to agree that, at least after the participant enters drug court, defense attorneys are not critical to the program. Others, however, pointed out that defense attorneys have a role but that it is largely behind the scenes—in team meetings rather than open court. Drug court participants, therefore, generally do not see the work their counsel does for them, according to this argument.
- The judge is a critical component of the drug court treatment model. Both participants and staff had largely positive views about the judge in their court. While appearing before the judge can be daunting, particularly for those called up on an infraction, most participants acknowledged that the judge was fair, sympathetic, and supportive, and that having to appear before the judge helped them stick to their treatment plan.
- Heightened monitoring, drug testing, and the threat of prison are key motivators to remain clean and in the program. The threat of going to prison for failing the drug court program has a clear and powerful effect on virtually all drug court participants. Participants clearly feared incarceration and would go to great lengths to avoid it. Just as most participants entered drug court to avoid prison, so too the prospect of incarceration is a powerful motivator to keep them in the program.
- Participants also cited heightened monitoring, especially frequent drug testing, as a critical component of drug court. They differentiated drug court from previous court experiences where there was little monitoring and, thus, their continued drug use went undiscovered.
- The courtroom experience is critical to drug court participants. Drug court participants clearly personalized the experience of appearing before and speaking to the judge in court; it appears to have a powerful effect. Participants spoke about being very nervous before court appearances, particularly when they anticipated sanction or reprimand and also about the sense of satisfaction when they received positive feedback from the judge. Sitting in court and seeing other cases also appears to be effective. Participants were surprisingly cognizant that this “audience effect” is intentional and most agreed that seeing others receive praise and sanctions (particularly the latter) sends the message that “it could be me” and helps to keep them clean.
- Treatment programs were the subject of frequent complaint. In all focus groups, criticism focused on a variety of complaints about treatment programs. Participants voiced concern about the length of treatment, classes they felt were inappropriate for them, scheduling issues, and required treatment fees. Staff discussed the lack of certified treatment providers in their communities, particularly those offering programs for specialized populations, as well as the drug court’s limited ability to hold providers accountable.
Suggestions to Improve Drug Courts
The focus groups also produced a number of thoughtful suggestions from participants and staff about ways to improve their drug court programs. Participants recommended expanding the court in different ways—e.g., having more treatment providers work with the court and providing flexible scheduling of classes; enhancing access to education, employment, job training, and other services; and reimbursing for travel so participants can more easily travel between court and treatment and home. Drug court staff echoed many of these concerns, and offered other suggestions not raised by participants, including the need for more treatment services for women, non-English speakers and the dually diagnosed; more training in addiction issues for judges, attorneys, and other legal staff who work with drug courts (as well as those in other court settings); and more widely available methadone treatment.