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My view: Moving from adversarial systems to collaborative re-entry courts for drug offenders

By Henri Sisneros

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Does a prosecutor weigh the cost of incarceration? Does a judge consider the impact of her demeanor on offenders? Is a defense lawyer interested in punishment to help a client change? The answer has always been “no.” That can change.

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“Tyler,” a recovering addict recently released from prison, struggled to find work and to care for a sickly child whose mother was herself a drug user. Under immense stress, Tyler relapsed and was poised to return to custody, which seemed easier than facing life on the “outside.”

If Tyler returns to prison, who pays? Who will support his child? What happens when he’s released? Luckily for Tyler (and us), there was a different answer: He entered the District of Utah’s RISE drug court, and remarkably, he changed.

Drug and re-entry courts are popular, but their history and why they work are little understood even as drug court practices form the cornerstone of a new approach.

Over 20 years ago, officials in Florida, overwhelmed by drug-related cases, created a court to manage a drug-addicted population.

The success of these courts was initially anecdotal. They seemed to make more sense than incarceration alone, and practitioners intuitively supported them. After all, they targeted and addressed underlying issues — like drug addiction — that contribute to crime.

Targeting issues that contribute to crime is crucial and unlike traditional approaches. How so? The "DNA" of drug and re-entry courts targets interventions to the needs of the offender.

Practitioners understood intuitively that these courts create a dynamic that helps offenders change their behavior. The courts look and act like a supportive, structured and functional family (or similar caring community). Tyler was always treated with care, with the judge’s role akin to a parent in a healthy family.

Researchers tell us that a judge must be positive even with relapse. He or she must converse intimately with each offender, and positive feedback should outnumber negative feedback. Good advice for a judge, or maybe a parent of a difficult teenager!

For those experienced with re-entry courts, being concerned with addressing the causes of criminal behavior is a better way of doing business.

Re-entry courts embrace practices that move beyond traditional roles: they obtain and share detailed information about participants; they use that information to guide treatment; they identify and target issues that lead participants to crime; they work collaboratively as a team; they concern themselves with metrics of success, including cost and public safety, through measuring recidivism.

The concern of re-entry courts for proven outcomes is radical. Does a prosecutor weigh the cost of incarceration? Does a judge consider the impact of her demeanor on an offender? Is a defense lawyer interested in punishment to help a client change behavior?

The answer to these questions has always been “no.” Traditional system actors had little concern with the enduring effect of their decisions in a complex system.

The Integrated Model, a plan developed by the National Institute of Corrections to help disparate justice systems embrace “what works,” provides a useful blueprint for change.

As a starting point, the model identifies issues common to all reform efforts:

(1) Use evidence-based practices of “what works.”

Using “what works” to get better outcomes is a commitment to change. We’re good at incarcerating, but we’re not good at improving outcomes. Changing the DNA of the system means developing tools to help offenders meet their challenges.

For example, research shows that offenders benefit from cognitive-therapy based on a simple truth: if a person changes how they think, they can change how they act. Thus, a commitment to “what works” means expanding access to therapy.

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