The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that more than 240,000 Americans are sent to prison annually for drug related crimes. This statistic isn’t surprising given that research has long shown a strong association between substance use and engagement in criminal activities.
Recognizing that reducing criminal recidivism requires an approach that emphasizes treatment and recovery from substance use disorder over punishment and incarceration, the first drug court was established in 1989 in Dade County, Florida – growing to include more than 3,500 drug courts across the country today.
Despite their demonstrated effectiveness in reducing substance use and criminal recidivism, drug courts often struggle with several common challenges, including how to identify individuals for whom drug court may be most appropriate, what factors to consider in selecting participants, and how to do this in an objective and fair manner.
Research also supports the benefit of moving beyond a “one-size-fits-all” approach to treatment and supervision, which can result in negative outcomes for drug court participants.
A New Framework
Risk and Needs Triage (RANT) software was developed to directly address many of these challenges using a reliable, evidence-based framework.
The secure, web-based tool helps judges and criminal justice professionals make more informed decisions when placing adults with drug-related offenses into the appropriate care setting.
RANT is derived from years of research showing that the most positive outcomes in terms of public health, public safety, and reduced recidivism are achieved when individuals are matched with services and supervision tailored to their specific criminogenic risk and clinical need profile.
Through a brief, 15-minute client risk/needs assessment, RANT provides an instant, client-specific report of the client’s current risk and need profile and a list of identified factors that may negatively impact their success.
RANT incorporates 19 straightforward and easy-to-administer items, most of which can be objectively verified to place clients in one of four risk/need quadrants (i.e., high or low risk x high or low need).
As an example, a person who is currently experiencing homelessness, began engaging in criminal activity and substance use during early adolescence, or has been diagnosed with HIV related to injection drug use practices would be categorized as high risk/high need.
This client would be well-suited for a drug court program with ongoing judicial status hearings as well as treatment for their substance use disorder.
Confronting Racial Bias
Another important benefit of integrating data-backed software and technology into the court system is that it takes subjectivity out of decision making.
Implicit bias has long been documented as a major concern in the criminal justice system and statistics show that people of color are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and convicted at a higher rate than white Americans for the same offenses.
For example, The Sentencing Project reported in 2018 that Black Americans were nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated than white Americans.
The National Association of Drug Court professionals also found in 2014 that more than half of individuals admitted to drug court were white, with rates of Black Americans admitted declining steadily since 2008.
Utilizing a standardized tool like RANT substantially reduces the subjectivity and bias that can occur during the selection process and helps promote fair and equitable access to drug court programs, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, etc.
Plus, taking a closer look at treatment needs versus criminalizing substance use through non-biased tools changes the trajectory for unnecessary arrests, incarceration, and addresses how we can better support people with substance use problems.
RANT offers several advantages to the court and society at-large. As mentioned, there is extensive information needed to support the day-to-day operations of drug court.
Implementing tech solutions can help consolidate data, efficiently manage cases, improve operations, foster better information sharing across drug court teams, and help jurisdictions distribute resources more effectively.
Improving drug court efficiencies simultaneously improves client outcomes and reduces taxpayer spending.
Although training and advocacy groups like the National Association of Drug Court Professionals have made significant progress to increase understanding of the nature and treatment of substance use disorders and to reduce the stigma associated with addiction, there is still much work to do.
Integrating evidence-based software and frameworks like RANT into the court system is another “tool in the toolbox” and an important step in the right direction.
When courts focus on addressing the underlying issue and individuals experiencing addiction have access to the support and specific care they need, positive outcomes for individuals, families, entire communities, and the judicial system increase.
Dr. Karen Dugosh is a Senior Scientist and Director of the Center on Addictions at Research & Evaluation Group, a Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) subsidiary. She oversees a number of research trials and systematic evaluations of interventions for people who have substance use disorders, with much of her work focusing on individuals with substance use disorders who are criminal justice-involved.