DC's Drug Court: A Great Thing Gets Better

Terrence D. Walton, Treatment Program Director

This year, the Superior Court Drug Intervention Program, better known as Drug Court, celebrates its 20th anniversary and reaches this milestone as a remarkably improved program. Drug Court always has delivered quality services and shown positive outcomes. This notwithstanding, over the past 18 months, PSA and the D.C. Superior Court set out to ensure that Drug Court is operated according to the latest best practices.

This effort began with an independent assessment of Drug Court’s current practices sponsored by PSA. It concluded that, while our program incorporated many of the elements of a strong Drug Court, there were several elements which should be enhanced. Through a painstaking process, Drug Court partners reviewed and decided upon which recommendations from the researchers to adopt. These partners represented the D.C. Superior Court, United States Attorney’s Office, Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS), Criminal Justice Act Defense Bar, Metropolitan Police Department, CSOSA, and PSA.
Implementation of these improvements began in September 2012 and will conclude in May 2013.

To become a model Drug Court that operates consistent with best practices, a number of enhancements are being implemented as outlined below.

  1. A single PDS defense attorney now handles all Drug Court clients and represents during all Drug Court hearings.
  2. The assigned PSA case managers are now present for their assigned defendants’ review hearings.
  3. Program length has been expanded to a minimum of 24 weeks, while reducing the weekly group hour requirements in the latter phases.
  4. An amended sentencing agreement option has been added for some felony-charged defendants. Those who complete this track will be sentenced as if they had been charged with and convicted of a misdemeanor offense.
  5. Phase One defendants now attend review hearings twice per month in order to give them more judicial contact, which has been found to be especially important to Drug Court success.
  6. Defendants now remain in Court until all defendants have been reviewed. This allows defendants to learn from one another’s experiences and interactions with the judge.
  7. Drug Court now holds daily pre-hearing staff meetings. During these staffings, the Drug Court team discusses the progress of defendants being reviewed for that day and makes any related decisions.
  8. All Drug Court defendants now test on a random schedule, which research indicates is more likely than a fixed schedule to encourage abstinence and detect substance use.
  9. Drug Court now accepts defendants who are receiving methadone maintenance treatment.
  10. Drug Court has shifted to servicing a higher-need population exclusively, namely those recommended for at least intensive outpatient treatment.
  11. An enhanced incentives and sanctions protocol will be implemented in May 2013.  This new protocol will include a larger array of sanctions and incentives and emphasize treatment group

Implementing even one of these enhancements might well have improved Drug Court operations and outcomes. While challenging, implementing all of them will bring Drug Court fully in line with what research indicates will produce the best possible outcomes. As Drug Court enters its third decade, PSA and its partners will shepherd a matured program better positioned to meet the increasingly complex needs of our defendant population.