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.

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