West Huddleston, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, talks about his group's new web site, why the nation's 2,300-plus drug courts reach only 10 percent of the people they're designed to help, and what's next on the horizon for the drug court movement.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. My name is Rob Wolf and I’m director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today I have the pleasure of talking with West Huddleston who is the executive director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
WEST HUDDLESTON: Thanks, Rob, for the opportunity.
WOLF: I thought maybe we’d start off talking about the new website for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The address is www.allrise.org.
HUDDLESTON: That’s right: allrise.org.
WOLF: What’s the thinking behind the name and behind the new look for the website?
HUDDLESTON: Well, the short story is although I’ve worked here at NADCP for the last 11 years, I’ve never – until three years ago when I took the helm as the CEO, I was really not put in a position to sell drug courts to the general public.
When I became CEO three years ago, I realized that those two words “drug court” or even if you put “treatment” in the middle, “drug treatment court,” it still sells a problem; it doesn’t sell a solution. And it basically creates a whole lot of questions.
So what I sought out to do is to find a public brand, if you will: if our industry brand is drug court, you know, what would be a brand for the general public that would sell the solution? And it struck me about a year ago that the two words “all rise” really do that for us.
I was sitting at a drug court graduation one night in Jackson, Mississippi, and as the bailiff bellowed out those two words, it struck me that those—that “all rise”—really carries with it an implicit and solemn promise that drug courts will help those that come before it.
WOLF: You’ve always been an advocacy organization to some extent, but are you putting advocacy and sort of promotion of the drug court concept more front and center than in the past?
HUDDLESTON: Yeah, Rob. You’re hitting it right on the head. You know, we’re 20 years old; drug courts are 20 years old. And the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which started in 1994, did exactly what its name implies, which was to focus on professionals, focus on the courts, change the system from within.
What I wanted to do when I became CEO is, in addition to that, which we will always do as a primary function of NADCP, but in addition to that, you know, it’s my belief that drug courts are deeply under-utilized, are the most effective strategy for drug-using offenders and need to be put within reach of every American in need.
And so, if we’re only serving 120,000 at any given time, and there are 1.2 million who need it, we need to tell our story to the general public. We need to tell our story to the media. We need to tell our story better on Capitol Hill and in state capitol buildings.
WOLF: Before we continue, I guess I’m taking it for granted that people listening know what a drug court is. But maybe in the simplest terms, could you just explain what the typical drug court model is?
HUDDLESTON: Sure. In essence, someone who is charged with a drug-driven offense, that could be anything from drug possession to burglary, theft, even drunk driving, those types of charges can be pled into a drug court.
And in essence, are objective is to get people into treatment quickly and to keep them long enough for treatment to actually benefit them. We hold them accountable by requiring them to come before a judge on a weekly or bi-weekly basis at first, and then it’s titrated down to maybe monthly or quarterly. And the participants are rewarded for doing well and sanctioned for not living up to their obligations.
WOLF: You know, with all the research that has shown how effective drug courts are in reducing recidivism, I wonder why you think drug courts have sort of hit a wall. I mean they really grew very quickly, expanded to many, to all states in the United States and are spreading internationally now.
And yet, as you say, they’re reaching only 10 percent of the potential population who could benefit. And their growth seems to have slowed and I wonder what factors you think have played a role in that. I wonder if the current economic crisis is having any impact. If you think the Obama administration policies might have a positive impact down the road. What are your thoughts on this issue?
HUDDLESTON: Well, I think that drug courts definitely stalled. And it was kind of shocking to us in that as the research, as you said, was coming out in clear fashion that they reduced substance abuse significantly, they reduced recidivism, and they saved money.
The funding for drug courts at the federal level went from 40, for instance, at the Department of Justice, $40 million really all the way down to right at $10 million just three years ago. The economy coupled with the federal investment dropping really hurt drug court’s ability to take on more clients, take on more participants.
So what do we look like in the future? Drug court funding started to hit back up under the former administration and certainly because of Congress. And funding last year was restored at the federal level—went from about $10 million to $15.3 million two years ago. Then it was increased to $40 million last year. And this year where we stand this afternoon, drug court funding at the Department of Justice, $64 million which is a historical high.
And there’s another roughly $24 million at the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA. In the president’s budget for next year, it even looks better. The president requested a total of about $120 million for drug courts and other problem-solving courts at the Department of Justice and at CSAT.
I think that the new administration and the Congress in place recognizes that these courts return a significant cost benefit. And by investing upfront, we’re going to see, you know, some significant return anywhere from $3.36 to $12 depending on what variables you count for every dollar invested.
So yeah, I think the future looks very good for drug courts and other problem-solving courts like mental health courts and domestic violence courts and all the other types of courts that, you know, your own organization really helped us think through.
WOLF: I’m wondering about all the research that’s gone into drug courts. And we do some of that here and we also research other problem-solving courts. One thing some of our researchers are trying to do are isolate some of the factors. Is it the role of the judge and the interaction the judge has with the defendant that is one of the key ingredients? Is it the monitoring? Is it the kind of treatment, and sort of trying to hone the model and find out what are the key elements. And I wonder as elements are identified as being paramount or the most effective, I wonder if the money that’s coming in can be spent in such array to sort of invest strategically in those things that work best.
HUDDLESTON: Well, you know, we think a little bit differently about it. There was a remarkable report published March of last year by NPC Research out of Portland, Oregon—So that’s Dr. Mike Finigan and Dr. Shannon Carey. This report explored the 10 key components of drug courts which were written and published in 1997. And it is what defines a drug court from any other court, distinguishes our model.
And it’s a comparative study of 18 drug courts on, you know, practices, outcomes and costs. And what that study tells us is that the 10 key components, the courts that follow the 10 key components do far better in terms of outcomes and costs than the drug courts that don’t.
And so, what this study has taught us and what we’re, in turn, teaching the field is that you can’t water down the 10 key components. If you do, you will start significantly losing your impact.
WOLF: Are they saying that all the components are equal though? I mean if someone has limited resources, and they want to do eight of the components perhaps, are you saying that they shouldn’t think that way, the should… ?
HUDDLESTON: That’s right. If you want good, if you want extraordinary outcomes, maintain the 10 key components. I am not convinced that you can select, you know, drug testing, regular drug testing and treatment, which are two of the 10 key components. I’m not convinced you can take those two key components and distill down or import them into everyday court practice and expect to have very good outcomes.
What drug courts need to do is reorient themselves from low-level offenders to a high-risk, high-need population meaning people with long histories of substance abuse, long histories of criminality, people who really need this level of intervention because it’s very intensive. So you know, I think our best outcomes according to NIDA’s research that Doug Marlowe published, you know, really looked at who fares best in drug court. And the clear answer to that are individuals who need it the most, high risk-high need people, people who failed out of treatment multiple times, people who have a long, you know, criminal record, those are the people who do the best in our model.
WOLF: Are a lot of drug courts avoiding that population for whatever reason?
HUDDLESTON: Well, they certainly did at the beginning. I mean it’s, you know, much more politically palatable to take low-level offenders and low-risk offenders, first time possession charges. That’s where drug courts started 20 years ago.
WOLF: So I mean it’s an interesting irony I guess that the population that initially seemed most attractive politically, drug courts are least effective with.
HUDDLESTON: Yeah. I mean that is a 100 percent accurate statement according to the literature, according to the research.
You know, I think the good news is drug court professionals are in that business to make a difference. And when they were introduced to this research, I believe it was three years ago, maybe two and a half years ago, we really saw a shift in population, in a drug court population, target population.
I think the tough road is still ahead of us because assessment for risk and need is not done before disposition typically. Typically, disposition, the court decides on what happens to the offender, and then the assessment kicks in. Well, it’s too late. You really don’t know who you have sitting in front of you. If you’re really going to have what we know as evidence-based sentencing, we’ve got to do assessment upfront at pre-trial level before the court decides or the prosecutor decides where the individual goes.
WOLF: So you’re saying …
HUDDLESTON: That’s a very radical change.
WOLF: But you’re saying right now the problem is that quite often they’re saying “You’ll get a year of treatment; okay, and this is the jail alternative if you don’t complete it. OK, agreed. Now let’s assess you if you really need a year or not”?
HUDDLESTON: That’s exactly what happens. It happens as a result of, you know, plea bargain. And it happens because the justice system tends to create eligibility criteria, not just for drug court but, you know, for DTAP, or any – for – pick your alternative.
WOLF: You’re talking about other alternative sentencing programs for drug treatment.
HUDDLESTON: Other alternative sentencing, even probation, OK? Eligibility is based on the crime, not on the person. So assessment is thought of as kind of “what are their clinical needs after we figure out legally where they belong?”
And you know, we’re really wanting to see the justice system do it almost opposite of that, that individuals need to be assessed for what they need and what is their risk and then make an appropriate decision on where they go.
WOLF: That sounds like it’s going to be awfully hard to bring out or bring a change around that.
HUDDLESTON: You know, it will be; it will be tough. But you know, we’ve added a million prison beds in this country in the last 20 years.
I mean it doesn’t make sense what we’re doing now. So I mean we’re – I think we’re at a real tipping point. If not now, when will this tipping point occur, you know, where there really does need to be some radical change in terms of who really does need to go to prison and jail versus who needs to go to a community alternative and which community alternative?
WOLF: I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I’ve been speaking with West Huddleston, the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which can be found now on the web at www.allrise.org.
HUDDLESTON: Yeah. It’s a real pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.
WOLF: Good luck with your work.
HUDDLESTON: Very good. Thanks so much.
WOLF: I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, which can be found on the web at www.courtinnovation.org.