Drug Court Unveils Its New Sanctions and Incentives Scheme

J. Michael McGuinness, Acting Program Director, Treatment Program

A little over a year ago, we shared news about how the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia (PSA) and the D.C. Superior Court set out to ensure that DC’s Drug Court operates according to the latest best practices. This included a list of those that PSA already had implemented as well as additional best practices recommended as a result of an independent assessment of the Drug Court. PSA recently completed the last of these recommended enhancements – its new sanctions and incentives scheme.

DC’s Superior Court Drug Intervention Program – better known as Drug Court - was established in 1993 as one of the original drug court programs in the country. In recent years, Drug Court has achieved a number of successes based on quantitative and qualitative data and feedback from defendants, staff and judicial officers, and has upgraded to implement best practices on an ongoing basis. Still, PSA was intent on ensuring that Drug Court incorporates national standards and guidelines to remain a model drug court. In March of 2011, PSA hired NPC Research to perform a process assessment and provide technical assistance to assist the Drug Court in reaching these goals.

Integrating substance use disorder treatment into pretrial supervision is a key element of PSA’s strategic plan and involves implementing evidence-based treatment approaches that have been found effective in criminal justice populations. The Drug Court is among those approaches, where swift and certain responses to defendant behavior play an integral role in treatment effectiveness.

The research team worked with PSA’s Office of Strategic Development and Treatment Program to assess the extent to which the current Drug Court program was implementing the ten “Key Components” of drug courts set forth by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in 1997 and the best practices that research indicates are related to positive outcomes.

PSA’s Treatment Program, which operates the Drug Court, expanded and redesigned its internal intensive outpatient treatment program to be more closely aligned with national and evidence-based standards for drug treatment programs and practices. Specific improvements include better matching for individual treatment needs to specialized group interventions; more intensive group treatment regimens to lessen the demand for expensive residential treatment; gender specific groups; and specialty treatment for defendants with co-occurring mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. 

PSA also revised the Drug Court eligibility criteria after extensive coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Superior Court and defense bar. The revisions provide greater opportunities for defendants charged with certain felony offenses to participate in the program. PSA also invested in training for all Drug Court and other Agency staff on the evidence-based practice of Motivational Interviewing, which teaches staff to communicate in ways that lower defendant resistance and enhance intrinsic motivation to modify behavior.

While all of these measures reflect our commitment to best practices, PSA still was not satisfied and was intent on progressing closer to being a model program. To further our progress on this goal, PSA contracted with NPC to conduct the assessment. While the researchers recognized that PSA already is progressive in its implementation of the Drug Court, their report made numerous recommendations for enhancements. The significant changes PSA made as a result of the assessment include:

  • Implementing random drug testing because research indicated that testing should be truly random and unexpected to assure better outcomes.  
  • Assigning a dedicated trained defense lawyer assigned to the Drug Court to serve in an advisory capacity for participants and their private counsel. 
  • Implementing regular staffing meetings attended by the full team: judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, and a PSO/treatment representative. In these meetings, each participant’s progress is discussed prior to the court sessions, and tentative decisions reached about potential responses to participant behavior. 

One of the final enhancements that PSA created is the position of a Drug Court Coordinator who is responsible for coordinating all administrative activities for the program, including facilitating daily pre-court team meetings, overseeing implementation of the incentives and sanctions strategy, and assisting PSA’s Drug Court staff in ensuring the effective operation of the program.

Finally, in August 2014, PSA implemented a new sanctions and incentives scheme that offers a greater variety of sanctions and rewards. Prior to the new scheme, the Drug Court sanctions grid included only four options. In hearings they observed, researchers noted that “a limited range of sanctions and rewards were routinely meted out, without much comment about the purpose and rationale behind the consequences.” In the new scheme, participants may receive writing assignments, community service or brief intervals of jail detention for failing to comply with the program. On the other hand, they may receive verbal praise, transportation incentives, and token gifts for compliance.

PSA recognized that programs tend to have better outcomes when they use a wide range of graduated rewards and sanctions that are applied in an escalating fashion over time. The experience also has more impact for the participant and court observers when they hear a clearly articulated explanation of what specific behavior elicited the sanction, why a particular type of sanction was chosen, and what the participant is expected to learn from the experience.

The success of any drug court depends largely on its ability to apply a meaningful range of intermediate rewards and sanctions. Programs that are too lenient are prone to elicit habituation and make outcomes stagnant; whereas those that are too harsh likely elicit resentment, avoidance and ceiling effects. Those programs that are “just right” trend toward the best results (1). Prior to these changes, Drug Court followed many of the guidelines of the ten “Key Components” of drug courts. These additional best practices that have been implemented make DC’s Drug Court “just right” and bring it closer to being a model drug court.

  1. Marlowe, The Drug Court Judicial Benchbook, 2011.