Research in Action: Drug Court Evaluation through a Researcher-Practitioner Partnership
Joseph Dule, MS, MA; David Myers, PhD; Kevin Earl, MS; Mengbei Wang, MS, MA; and Timothy Daty, MEd;
University of New Haven
This issue of EBP Quarterly presents an evaluation of a federal initiative to provide support and structure to individuals in the criminal justice system who struggle with drug and alcohol problems. Specifically, this research examines a federal Support Court created by the United States District Court of Connecticut. The specialized court originated in 2009 and operates in three locations: Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven.
Researchers from the University of New Haven partnered with working professionals from the United States District Court of Connecticut to evaluate the Support Court. Initial research activities, reported in this issue of EBP Quarterly, centered on conducting a process evaluation of Support Court operations and services, as well as a descriptive assessment of participant outcomes. Further comparative research, utilizing similar federal offenders who did not participate in Support Court, was conducted to more rigorously assess the impact of Support Court. Future publication of the impact evaluation results is anticipated.
Existing data indicate there are over 189,000 federal prison inmates, nearly half of which (over 82,000) are serving time for drug offenses (Carson, 2018). Drug-related offenses, in fact, represent the most common type of crime among federal inmates. In comparison, less than 8% of federal inmates are imprisoned for violent offenses, about 6% are incarcerated for property crimes, and around 38% are in federal prison for public order crimes (which include weapons offenses).
In addition to the federal prison population, the total number of adults under federal supervision in the community stands at nearly 132,000 (Kaeble, 2018). Of these individuals, approximately 17,000 (or 13%) are on federal probation, while over 114,000 (87%) are on supervised release following a period of incarceration. The total population of adults under state probation or parole supervision stands at nearly 4,500,000. When combined, a significant portion of individuals under federal or state supervision were convicted of drug-related offenses. Specifically, 24% of federal and state probationers and 31% of federal and state parolees were convicted of drug crimes.
Federal and state correctional populations, and particularly individuals incarcerated or supervised for drug-related offenses, are a nationwide concern. Furthermore, the recidivism of known offenders has come to the forefront in discussions of criminal justice issues and reform (Johnson, 2017). Overall, research indicates persistently high recidivism rates among known offenders. To illustrate, one study tracked over 25,000 federal offenders over an 8-year period, beginning in 2005 (Hunt & Dumville, 2016). About half were rearrested, almost one-third were reconvicted, and one-quarter were reincarcerated. Of those individuals who reoffended, most did so within the first 2 years of release (the median time to rearrest was 21 months). Those who were released from incarceration had a rearrest rate of 52%, while those given a probationary sentence had a rearrest rate of 35%.
A separate 2016 study produced similar findings. In this research, of approximately 43,000 offenders placed on federal community supervision in 2005, 35% were rearrested within 3 years, and 43% were arrested within 5 years (Markman, Durose, Rantala, & Tiedt, 2016). Among those released from federal prison, nearly half (47%) were arrested within 5 years, and about 30% returned to prison during the same period. Finally, and perhaps more troubling, an analysis of over 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states revealed that 68% were rearrested within 3 years, 79% were rearrested within 6 years, and 83% were rearrested within 9 years (Alper, Durose, & Markman, 2018).
In sum, large correctional populations continue to be a national concern, and a substantial portion of prison inmates and individuals on correctional supervision in the community have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Moreover, many other inmates and supervised offenders present a history of drug and alcohol problems, regardless of their official criminal record. Research also indicates persistently high recidivism rates, with the effects of drug and alcohol history and use being likely factors in this repeat offending.
This initial study sought to assess a federal Support Court operating in three locations in Connecticut. More specifically, a process evaluation was conducted to assess the intended target population, the personnel in place and stakeholder engagement, and the services being provided, with a descriptive assessment of outcomes being achieved. Multiple sources of data were used to answer four primary research questions. Results of the evaluation are discussed below, along with the research limitations.
Is Support Court Reaching the Intended Target Population?
According to the Connecticut Support Court Policies and Procedures Manual (2016), the target population consists of both pretrial and post-conviction releases who exhibit current or past substance abuse and/or are at heightened risk of relapse. Official data derived from PACTS confirms that both pretrial (N=69) and post-conviction (N=140) participants are being served. In terms of various risk factors exhibited by the target population, the average number of prior arrests for Support Court participants is 5.55, with a statistically significant difference (p< .05) between pre-trial (mean of 4.49 arrests) and post-conviction (mean of 6.07 arrests) participants. Consistent with Drug Court best practices (National Association of Drug Court Professions, 2015), Connecticut Support Court utilizes evidence-based assessment tools (PTRA, PCRA, and RPI) to assess participant risk scores. Among all Support Court participants, the average RPI score was 4.38 (RPI scores can range from 0-9); the average PTRA score was 3.42 (between Category 3 and 4, with Categories ranging from 1-5); and the average initial PCRA score was 2.43, while the ending PCRA average score was 2.3 (between low/moderate and moderate, with four possible risk categories). These scores suggest that Support Court clients are generally moderate risk. It is likely that some of the disqualifying criteria (listed in the Connecticut Support Court Policies and Procedures Manual), such as sex-related crimes, arson, serious firearm charges, & violent crime, may exclude many “high risk” offenders from program participation.
In terms of participant drug and alcohol risk factors, this study finds that substance use generally began at a fairly young age (mean age of 14.63 years), suggesting that the served target population (whose mean age was 36.77 years at program start date) typically exhibits long-term or chronic history with drug and/or alcohol use. In terms of current criminal convictions, approximately two thirds (68.9%) of participants were convicted of a drug charge, and 91.9% were convicted of a felony offense. Upon participant entry into the Support Court program, over half (53.6%) of participants were reported to be in sustained remission, nearly a quarter (23.4%) were in early remission, while approximately one in five (21.1%) were actively abusing substances, and 1.9% were actively dependent. Participant survey data (N=22) also revealed that 82% of participants had previously been in treatment (for either addiction or mental health) prior to Support Court. Results from this study also indicate that most participants had several drugs of choice. Specifically, cannabinoids were found to be the most popular first (35.4%), second (29.7%), and third (13.9%) drug of choice. The second most reported first drug of choice was heroin (16.3%), followed by alcohol (15.3%), cocaine (11.5%), and prescription opiates (10.5%).
From the Support Court stakeholder perspective, survey results (N=20) indicate that stakeholders “agree” (mean score of 4.05) that the program is reaching its defined target population. A score closer to “strongly agree” (mean score of 5.0) was not achieved, which may suggest some concern over whether the target population is being reached. This may have to do with the characteristics of offenders enrolled or not enrolled in the program, and/or it could pertain to the typical number of Support Court participants. The Policies and Procedures Manual (2016) specifies that each divisional Support Court shall be capped at 16 participants. Although stakeholders generally agree that they are serving as many eligible individuals as practicable, while maintaining continuous fidelity to best practice standards, the average annual number of Support Court participants was about 25 from 2010 through 2017. Enrollment figures also varied across the three sites. Although Support Court enrollments are well within best practice standards (e.g., Carey et al., 2012, recommend caseloads of less than 125 active participants), there may be room for growth in terms of the number of participants served across the three sites.
Taken together, these results suggest that the Support Court program is appropriately targeting individuals who are at a heightened risk for continued or renewed substance use or abuse. Support court participants generally demonstrate a long history of substance use, have an established criminal history (including drug-related and felony convictions), have multiple drugs of choice, and often present a history of treatment prior to their participation in the Support Court program. Consideration should be given to the total number of participants served and whether these numbers can be increased, while targeting medium and higher risk offenders who may benefit most from the services and treatment provided.
Are the intended personnel/stakeholders in place and engaged?
The intended stakeholders in Support Court include the U.S. District Judge at each Support Court location, the United States Attorney’s Office, the Federal Defenders Office, the United States Probation Office, and treatment providers. On-site observations confirmed that representatives from all intended stakeholders were present for team meetings and Support Court sessions. Additional observational findings were favorable. Despite a few stylistic differences (e.g., the level of formality within a particular court session), each treatment team appeared highly committed to its mission and engaged in its work. Stakeholder survey results confirmed that stakeholders believe the Support Court team works cohesively, members understand each other’s perspective, decisions are reached collaboratively, and team members value other team member’s input and recognize their contributions to the success of the program.
Support Court participant perspectives about the team members also were highly positive. For example, survey responses of Support Court participants revealed they felt that the Judge, PO, Treatment Staff, AUSA, and FDO were fair, concerned, and respectful of Support Court participants. Further, participant responses about their interactions with the Judge indicate that they feel they are being treated in a procedurally just manner. In addition to feeling that the Judge was fair, concerned, and respectful, participants also felt that the Judge allowed them enough time to tell their side of the story, remembered their name and situation from week to week, and was not intimidating. Scores that appeared more neutral pertaining to the Support Court staff centered on whether or not a PO, Treatment Staff member, or FDO had too high of expectations for what the participant felt he/she could achieve.
An area that stakeholders appear less engaged in, based on results from stakeholder survey, pertain to the use of data and evidence-based practices. For example, stakeholder responses that scored somewhat lower pertained to how the program uses data to assess program operations and performance, along with the use of evidence-based assessment tools to guide program decision-making. Stakeholder scores regarding these activities generally were in the neutral to agree category, while most other responses ranged from agree to strongly agree. Additionally, stakeholder survey data revealed less favorable views about how the program has leveraged media to engage the public, as well as public perceptions of the program.
Are the intended services being provided?
The Connecticut Support Court Policies and Procedures Manual (2016) stipulates that participants will be connected to treatment, employment, educational resources, and pro-social organizations in the community. In terms of treatment, available options to participants include: detoxification, residential (short-term/long-term), intensive outpatient (IOP), group (e.g., relapse prevention), individual counseling, co-occurring, medication monitoring (where appropriate) and sober living residences. The level of treatment is tailored to the individual. Service record data from PACTS revealed that the majority of Support Court participants were currently involved in outpatient treatment (61.2%), while 10% were involve in inpatient treatment, and 15.8% were involved in self-help treatment. In terms of mental health treatment, about a quarter of participants (23%) were receiving mental health treatment, while 11% reported therapy within the past year. Most participants (50.2%) presented no evidence of a mental health condition, while about a quarter (23.9%) have a history of mental health problems, but no active problems.
Survey data revealed that stakeholders feel participants are receiving the appropriate dosage of treatment, treatments are individualized, needs are being met, the Judge values treatment-providers’ recommendations, and that the Support Court has a satisfactory network of treatment providers. The lowest score pertaining to stakeholder views of treatment regarded gender-specific treatment (mean score of 3.75), which fell in the range of “neutral” (score of 3.0) to “agree” (score of 4.0). In line with stakeholder views on treatment, survey data from participants indicated that participants feel they are receiving effective drug and alcohol services, and that the services are helpful in reducing their substance use.
In terms of the Support Court program’s goal of improving participant access to education and employment, the results from the participant’s survey were somewhat less favorable than in the area of treatment. More specifically, participant survey scores pertaining to questions about the program’s assistance with education, employment, and housing were comparatively lower than perceptions of treatment scores, indicating less consensus about how successful the program has been in these areas. It should be noted that these scores fell between the “neutral” and “agree” categories, meaning they were comparatively lower than other areas, but generally views on these items still were positive. In addition, the analysis of PACTS data focused on housing stability and employment (measured before and during Support Court) revealed that during Support Court both housing stability and employment improved significantly.
In terms of drug testing, stakeholders agreed that drug tests are occurring on a timely basis, results are communicated quickly to the Support Court team, and that sufficient precautions are in place to prevent drug test tampering. Participants also agreed that drug testing was helpful for their sobriety. Analysis of drug testing frequency and results data revealed that participants average .4428 drug tests per week, or about 1 drug test every other week. Although no specific number of drug tests has been established as a definitive “best practice,” research suggests that programs utilizing more frequent testing (in combination with evidence-based therapies) tend to be the most successful (Drug Courts Program Office, 1997; Goldkamp et al., 2001; Lowenkamp et al., 2005). Research by Carey et al. (2012) did find that programs requiring drug tests two or three times per week produced substantially higher cost savings, suggesting Support Court drug testing frequency may be on the lower end of evidence-based recommendations.
Are the anticipated outcomes being achieved?
Results from this study indicate that several of the anticipated individual and community outcome variables identified in the Policy and Procedures Manual (2016) are being achieved. Survey responses of participants pertaining to sobriety and remaining drug-free, being involved in a recovery lifestyle, employment, independence, housing, life skills, mental and physical well-being, coping skills, trust, self-worth, and family relationships indicate that the program has made a positive impact. Participants also generally felt that the program had a positive impact on how their family viewed the criminal justice system.
As previously mentioned, analysis of PACTS data revealed that participant housing stability and employment status significantly improved while participants were in the program. In addition, drug test data indicated that participants on average completed 17 drug tests while in Support Court, with an average of 2.5 positive tests. Considering the backgrounds and history of drug use exhibited by drug court participants, the proportion of positive drug tests (.14189, or 14%) while in Support Court seems remarkably low, and the proportion of positive drug tests completed after participating in Support Court is slightly lower (.11854, or 12%). Additional individual anticipated outcomes stipulated in the Connecticut Support Court Policies and Procedures Manual (2016), such as parental responsibility, obtaining ID/benefits, and financial management, were not sufficiently captured by the data utilized in this study.
In a comparison of pre-trial versus post-conviction Support Court participants, it was found that pre-trial Support Court participants received significantly shorter sentences of incarceration, as compared to post-conviction participants. This analysis controlled for sentencing guideline scores, demographic characteristics, and court location. To a lesser extent, pre-trial participants also received significantly shorter terms of supervised release or probation supervision. In addition, a separate statistical finding indicated pre-trial participants exhibited a significantly lower proportion of positive drug tests compared to post-conviction participants. Overall, these results suggest the pre-trial component of Support Court has been effective in encouraging treatment and supervision compliance prior to sentencing, and, subsequently, reducing prison sentence lengths and periods of supervision.
In terms of anticipated community outcomes, the second phase of this evaluation will incorporate a matched comparison group, through which the effect of Support Court on recidivism can be better estimated. Nevertheless, descriptive measures of official recidivism for Support Court participants appear promising. Based on PACTS data and official criminal records data maintained by the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, 23% of Support Court participants had their supervision revoked after program participation, and 29% had a future conviction in Connecticut on a new offense (with varying amounts of time at risk in the community). Only 10% were convicted on a new felony, and only 8% were convicted on a drug offense. About 22% were sentenced to incarceration on a new offense, but only about 10% were incarcerated for more than 12 months on a new offense. Finally, only 6% of Support Court participants offended within 6 months for a crime that generated a future conviction, 12% offended with 12 months, and 21% offended within 24 months.
To provide some context on recidivism, the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, regularly examines the recidivism of Connecticut prisoners during a 3-year post-release period. Examinations of individuals released from Connecticut Department of Corrections custody in 2008 and 2014 revealed that 51% and 45%, respectively, were convicted on a new offense (Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, 2015, 2018). In addition, 37% and 34% were returned to prison to begin a new term of incarceration. Although these percentages are higher than those exhibited by Support Court participants, it is important to note that these figures reflect reconviction and reincarceration of Connecticut state offenders, not federal offenders whose recidivism rates tend to be lower than state offenders (Alper et al., 2018; Hunt & Dumville, 2016; Markman et al., 2016).
Finally, about half of all Support Court participants either have graduated or otherwise left the program successfully. While this finding is similar to completion rates uncovered in drug court research (Brown, 2010), it also means that about half of the Support Court participants have been terminated or otherwise left the program unsuccessfully. Support Court data indicate the percentage of participants who were terminated formally from the program (23%) was very similar to the percentage of participants who were revoked (23%) or had a future conviction on a new offense in Connecticut (29%). Although current recidivism findings are promising, increasing the percentage of graduated/successful program participants also could enhance recidivism outcomes.
In interpreting and utilizing the findings discussed above, it is important to consider the various research limitations associated with this evaluation. To begin, participant and stakeholder survey sizes were small. All active participants and treatment team members across the three Support Court sites were surveyed in summer 2018. While this survey data is useful, particularly in combination with the other data sources, it may not be representative of participants and treatment team members associated with Support Court from 2009 through present day. The small sample sizes also limited the data analysis to univariate statistics.
The current process evaluation did not employ a comparison group or experimental design. The initial goal was to provide an in-depth examination of Support Court participants, operations, and outcomes, and answer the four research questions presented in this report. Future comparative research, utilizing similar federal offenders who did not participate in Support Court, will further assess the effect of Support Court on recidivism. Although random assignment to experimental and control groups is not feasible, access to extensive service record data is anticipated to generate a strong quasi-experimental design with well-matched treatment and comparison groups.
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