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Friday, June 23, 2006

College Drug Courts

"Anyone sitting there?"

Randy Monchick settled into an open seat next to me during lunch on the second day of the drug court conference. Before long, I found myself absorbed in a discussion of his new initiative: an attempt to import the drug court model to college campuses across the country.

It's a nice example of what I would call "problem-solving entrepreneurialism": taking the principles and practices or problem-solving courts and applying them in new settings.

The scale of the drug and alcohol abuse problem is clear, as Randy as his co-facilitator Lisa Miller of Colorado State University pointed out at a workshop session I attended after lunch. There are 1,700 alcohol-related students deaths on college campuses per year, along with 70,000 documented alcohol and drug related sexual assaults. Researchers have found that about 25 percent of college students are frequent binge drinkers, meaning that they regularly have five or more drinks in a two-hour period.

The issue isn't merely that a certain percentage of young adults are (inevitably)experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The issue is environmental: through a mix of permissiveness, peer pressure and a "wink and nod" attitude towards drug and alcohol abuse, college campuses have become laboratories for destructive behavior. As Lisa Miller pointed out, college students abuse drugs and alcohol about twice as often as similarly aged peers not enrolled in school.

Interestingly enough, students regularly over-state the percentage of their peers they believe are abusing drugs and alcohol. Translation: students believe "everyone is doing it," a clear expression of strongly held beliefs about college culture.

Lisa's "Day IV" program, based at Colorado State University, is the first of its kind in the country. Instead of suspending (or kicking out) students who violate the school's code of conduct, they are given a "deferred dismissal" in exchange for following a strict set of program rules, which includes abstinence (enforced through random drug testing) and regular meetings with a team of social workers and a hearing officer. After a minimum of four months participation, the student can be restored to regular status; if they fail to complete the program, they are formally dismissed.

Randy's goal is to export the Day IV approach to college campuses across the country, with support from the Century Council. Two pilot sites (Texas A & M and the University of Nevada) have already been selected, with more on the way.

I asked Lisa and Randy how much impact programs like Day IV can have on a college culture that often pressures students (particularly freshman) to drink. Over time, according to Lisa, she's learned "which fraternities, which academic departments and which residence halls" are having repeated problems. Some of the best sources of information are program graduates, many of whom continue working on a voluntary basis for Day IV. The university can use this information to address problem locations - for example, by threatening to revoke a fraternity's charter unless they agree to major changes.

In my view, it's this type of problem-solving enforcement that offers the most promising approach to the culture problem. To be successful, Day IV and programs like it will have to go beyond addressing individual behavior to addressing an environment that encourages reckless and dangerous behavior. At Colorado State, Day IV has already gotten the attention of the wider student body: Lisa Miller laughably refers to an "I hate Lisa Miller" club on MySpace (a popular internet bulletin board) created by anonymous students.

It's not much different from what we're tying to accomplish at Bronx Community Solutions: addressing behavior that might otherwise be dismissed or minimized, creating a culture of accountability while offering individuals a helping hand.

A final thought: one of the striking things about Day IV is the attempt to apply problem-solving court techniques in a non-court setting. If problem-solving can go to a college campus, where else can it go?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A National Forum

"I like to bill it as part revival, part family reunion and part educational seminar" said Karen Freeman-Wilson, Executive Director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Today is the opening day of NADCP's 12th annual drug court conference, and Karen and West Huddleston (who runs the National Drug Court Institute) are taking time out of their busy schedule to talk about the conference.

Over 2,000 individuals are in attendance, along with hundreds of speakers covering such topics as "The ABCs of Drug Courts" to "Using Culture to Strengthen Your Program."

I'm here too, with a specific assignment: to bring ideas back to the Bronx.

It's become almost a cliche to report that drug courts have come of age. The first drug court conference, held in Las Vegas in 1994 at a time when there were fewer than 100 drug courts in operation around the country, attracted about 150 attendees. Today, there are well over 2,000 drug courts and other problem-solving courts in operation around the country - an explosion of judicial creativity.

Walking the halls of the drug court conference can be a remarkable experience. Judges rub shoulders with drug treatment professionals, legal scholars, and recovering addicts. Private companies compete to sell urinalysis kits and home voice monitoring systems. Celebrity guests like Smokey Robinson and Tom Arnold provide evening entertainment.

Beyond the spectacle, however, is a celebration of a shared accomplishment: drug courts have repeatedly demonstrated that courts can in fact change the behavior of offenders and reduce substance abuse.

After over a decade, the drug court conference also offers an opportunity for a sober (excuse the pun) evaluation of the movement's impact. For all their success, drug courts and other problem-solving courts are still not able to reach many cases in need - Karen Freeman Wilson estimates that they are available to five to 10 percent of the eligible population nationwide.

The need is glaring in some areas of the country. "It's an issue when Stillwater, Oklahoma's drug court has as many participants as Los Angeles, California" West Huddleston succinctly puts it.

What would it take for drug courts and other problem-solving courts to reach a larger population? Karen sees the challenge in part as a matter of funding: drug courts benefit state budgets by reducing incarceration, but those cost savings don't always result in investments in drug treatment systems. West sees a related challenge: equipping drug courts to better engage communities and build long-term political and financial support.

We also talked about a conceptual challenge that is at the heart of Bronx Community Solutions: managing the trade-off between maintaining drug courts and other problem-solving courts as stand-alone entities, versus applying a set of core principles and practices on a more systemwide basis. It's a tough balance to strike, because there's a risk of watering down the model so much that it becomes unrecognizable.

The good news is that after over ten years of practice, research into best practices is beginning to drill down to the specific pieces of the drug court model that account for its success. Take judicial interaction, for example: Doug Marlowe from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that regular status hearings with "high risk" offenders provide the biggest bank for the buck, meaning that courts concerned about overburdening court calendars can be more selective in terms of requiring follow-up appearances.

For other issues, it's clear that a careful translation process is required. The stakes are high. Should eligibility standards be expanded to include more than just non-violent offenders? What about individuals arrested on a non-drug charge? Is the "team approach" in which defense attorneys and prosecutors collaborate in a drug court appropriate for a larger system used to an adversarial model? Can every judge be a drug court judge?

Karen and West point to such jurisdictions as Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Hennepin County, Minnesota and San Diego, California as pioneers in this process. I'll be interested in talking to these practitioners, to learn about what they're doing and see how their approaches might be useful for Bronx Community Solutions.

During the drug court conference, I'll be providing live commentary in an effort to capture some of the debate about the future of the drug court and problem-solving court movement. What are your thoughts about the issues and challenges facing the field? To share them, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Making A Difference

"You want me to do what?"

The Bronx Community Solutions community service crew was about to embark on its toughest challenge yet: helping the Mount Hope Housing Corporation haul a dumpster's worth of garbage out of an heavily overgrown, formerly abandoned lot.

In a few weeks the Mount Hope Housing Corporation is breaking ground on a community center that will offer space for youth recreation, computer labs, classrooms, employment and financial literacy programs, gardens and community events. They asked us to prepare the site for the ground breaking ceremony.

While Mount Hope was excited to get our help, we were equally excited to have the opportunity to experiment with a different model of community service. For the first time in the Bronx, we were partnering with a local non-profit to assist in visible and tangible efforts to improve safety and neighborhood quality of life. It's one of our ideas for adapting strategies that have been successful at the Red Hook Community Justice Center to an entire borough.

But to our clients, this was a day of court-ordered community service. They weren't sure what to expect, and mostly they were just hoping to get their mandate done. A typical day of community service is light work: mostly sweeping and picking up litter in public parks, sidewalks, and streets. Today, we would be cleaning a formerly abandoned lot piled high with trash.

Gunnar Frederickson from the Mount Hope Housing Corporation was at the site to meet us, and he took a few minutes to describe the history and mission of the organization and plans for this site. They’ve been working in the neighborhood for over 20 years to develop and manage safe, decent affordable housing, as well as promoting economic development and providing human services.

After bagging a huge amount of trash and hauling it off the site, it was obvious to everyone that we had really accomplished something. Although they'd been skeptical at first, our clients were saying things like, "I'm going to come back a year from now and make sure they finish this project." "This is my neighborhood. I can't believe how much trash people dump here. It doesn't feel right."

Many of the clients who worked the hardest also sought information about job training and job placement programs like Urban Youth Alliance and FEGS and we made sure to escort them to our clinic after the day was over. We’ve learned that clients who show up and take their mandate seriously are often good candidates for these programs.

Rejuvenating neglected and abandoned public space in the Bronx has a special history. In the aftermath of wholesale disinvestment, the Bronx has been rebuilt lot-by-lot and block-by-block, often by small community-based organizations and groups of neighbors. Around us, we saw visible signs of that history. Right across the street was a vibrant community garden (see below picture).

Can the courts have a meaningful role in strengthening and enhancing efforts like these that improve safety and quality of life for neighborhoods and communities? We're interested to find out.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Little Piece of Red Hook

It was just another site visit at the superstore for problem-solving justice, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

I was there on a shopping mission: to bring something back to the Bronx.

Though I work for the same parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, I wasn’t much different than the hundreds of visitors who made their pilgrimage to Red Hook every year. One of the Center's dozen demonstration projects, Red Hook has hosted thousands of visitors from all over the world since opening its doors in 2000.

They come to learn about the unique relationship the Justice Center has with the surrounding southwest Brooklyn neighborhood, as well as the problem-solving techniques Presiding Judge Alex Calabrese applies to criminal, civil and housing court cases.

Anyone who walks in the doors of the Justice Center quickly learns what a different place it is. Court officers tutor kids after they get out of school. Prosecutors and defense attorneys joke about the relative strengths of the summer youth baseball teams they coach in a local park. Residents attend GED classes and community meetings hosted at the Jusice Center in the evenings.

In contrast to the impersonal environment and cynicism often displayed in large urban courthouses, Red Hook feels like an oasis. For example, the Justice Center was awarded the prestigious Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence for its innovative architectural design.

It's an attitude shared by the staff who work at Red Hook. “I felt like I hit the jackpot when I was transferred here,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Masone told me. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” said Lieutenant Robert Vitucci.

While Red Hook is an inspiring place to visit, it can also feel intimidating. It’s natural for a visitor to walk away wondering, “could I do this?”

That’s where Bronx Community Solutions comes in. Our goal is to take the best parts of demonstration projects like Red Hook and see if they can work in a very different environment – a traditional urban courthouse.

Take the value of collaboration. During my visit, I participated in the weekly “list” meeting – in which the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys and social work staff gather to monitor the progress of defendants mandated to complete a long-term mandate, such as inpatient drug treatment. Over time, court staff get to know clients personally and end up rooting for them to be successful. As ADA Masone put it, “Now I’m looking for opportunities to get better results with defendants.”

During the list meeting, I started to think about ways to adopt the concept to the Bronx. Is it possible, for example, to bring together representatives of the district attorney and defense bar to discuss potential community-based alternatives to incarceration for particular defendants?

The list meeting also helped me understand the importance of some of the less obvious forms of collaboration that I've seen in the Bronx. For example, Steve is an NYPD officer who works in the holding pens where offenders are detained before their arraignment. Several months ago, Steve encouraged a reluctant female defendant to enter an inpatient drug treatment program while she waited to see the judge.

To this day, wherever I see Steve – either in the courthouse or on the street – he still asks about her progress. As Lieutenant Vitucci from Red Hook states, “Most officers do care, I don’t care how busy they are.”

Collaboration is not only evident among the officers in the Bronx. Like Red Hook, prosecutors are concerned with preventing crime, but they realize that jail may not always be the best solution and frequently approach me saying “this guy needs a program.”

The lesson for us is the importance of encouraging court players - such as attorneys, court officers and court clerks - to participate in Bronx Community Solutions. For example, we're thinking of starting a regular pickup basketball game (adapting the idea of Red Hook's summer baseball league) that would include Bronx Community Solutions program graduates as well as people who work in the courts.

Another thing we've learned from Red Hook is how a sense of fairness not only prompts cooperation between court staff, but also a successful outcome for the client. “It feels different here,” one Bronx Community Solutions client told me today as he sat in the intake office and was given a sandwich and juice while being scheduled for his social services.

“Community engagement” was the resounding answer that echoed through Red Hook when I asked for advice on what we should be focusing on in the Bronx.

Red Hook is all about changing perspectives of communities by making them problem-solvers. “Go to their meetings and hear what they have to say” was suggested by James Brodick, the Project Director for the Red Hook Criminal Justice Center. Brodick, Judge Calabrese, court officers and other staff at Red Hook regularly attend community meetings, which sends a powerful message of respect to local residents.

Now the challenge – how can we effectively engage a community with 1.5 million residents? Understanding the importance of community meetings, we have initiated a community advisory board which will be reconvening for the second time next month to identify and target specific problem areas in the community.

It’s intimidating to be compared to our big sister project, but we can learn from Red Hook and take little pieces back to our jurisdictions with us. Cooperation and fairness are immeasurable, but there are clearly pieces of the Red Hook spirit showing in the Bronx.