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Montana Drug Courts

Drug courts were first developed in Dade County (Miami), Florida in 1989 to reduce the tremendous backlog of drug-related court cases and to reduce recidivism and substance abuse among participants. This is accomplished by successfully habilitating offenders with a high risk to reoffend and a high need for treatment through intensive alcohol and drug abuse treatment, mandatory and frequent drug testing, accountability through use of appropriate and quick sanctions for non-compliant behavior, incentives and recognition for hard work, continuous judicial oversight and employment and other services needed in order to enter long-term recovery and become productive members of society.

Drug courts offer, in most cases, a voluntary, therapeutic program designed to break the cycle of addiction and crime (or abuse and neglect in family drug courts) by addressing the underlying causes of drug dependency. Drug court is a highly specialized team process that functions within the existing court structure to address nonviolent drug related cases. Drug courts are unique in the criminal justice environment because they build a close collaborative relationship between criminal justice and drug treatment professionals. The drug court judge manages a team of court staff, attorneys, probation officers, substance abuse counselors, and child and family services social workers all focused on supporting and monitoring each participant’s recovery. Drug court participants undergo an intensive regimen of substance use disorder treatment, case management, drug testing, and probation supervision while reporting to regularly scheduled status hearings before the judge with specialized expertise in the drug court model. In addition, drug courts increase the probability of participants’ success by providing a wide array of ancillary services such as mental health treatment, trauma and family therapy, job skills training, and many other life-skill enhancement services. Judicial supervision coupled with the overarching threat of progressive sanctions up to and including jail or prison facing those who fail drug court, produces much better treatment and recidivism outcomes than both standard prosecution/probation and earlier court-mandated treatment approaches.

In Montana a drug court is a court docket within a district court or court of limited jurisdiction (i.e., city, municipal or justice’s court) that specializes in adult criminal, DUI offenses, juvenile, veteran or civil child abuse and neglect cases involving persons who are alcohol or other drug dependent. Drug courts reduce recidivism and substance abuse among participants and successfully habilitate them through alcohol and drug abuse treatment, mandatory and frequent drug testing, use of appropriate sanctions and incentives, and continuous judicial oversight.

Montana established its first drug court in Missoula in 1996. Currently, there are 31 drug courts operating in the state, including 5 tribal courts. These courts developed organically based on local needs, interest and resources. Most of them initially received funding from federal grants. Although all of the courts generally adhere to the federal drug court model, each reflects the circumstances and capabilities of its local community.

The 2007 Legislature appropriated the first state general fund money to drug courts. This 2009 biennium appropriation was used to provide grants to drug courts, employ a full-time statewide drug court administrator, and develop a statewide system for collecting, reporting and analyzing court performance data.

In January 2008, a statewide drug court coordinator was hired. One of the coordinator’s first tasks was to complete site reviews for the drug courts that had received state funding. The site reviews included a general review of the drug courts based on adherence to the federal drug court model (10 Key Components) and suggestions for addressing potential problem areas. The site reviews also assisted in identifying statewide issues or concerns.

In August 2008, the OCA sponsored a statewide drug court conference. Several national experts presented on a wide range of topics including evidence-based motivational incentives, local drug court evaluation, relapse prevention strategies, and breaking intergenerational cycles of addiction. Over 150 people participated in this three-day event. In September 2010, the state’s second drug court conference was held with a special focus on team action planning based on research of over 100 cost benefit research studies and the identification of drug court cost benefit strategies. Additional workshops focused on: Cultural Sensitivity for Native Americans, Medically Assisted Treatment, Medical Marijuana, Prescription Drug Abuse, Constitutional Issues in Drug Court and Juvenile Drug Courts – What Is Working. Nearly 170 people attended the two-day event. In April 2012, the state’s third drug court conference was held with a special emphasis on evidence-based practices and team action planning based on those practices. Approximately 250 people attended the conference, and every team submitted an action plan. In 2013, a 2-day Operational Tune-up entitled, “Retooling Your Program for Adult Drug Courts” was held in Billings and Great Falls. These Tune-ups included a review of current adult drug court research, a review of target populations based upon the current research literature, legal issues that occur in drugs courts, applied research approaches to treatment and development of a step-by-step approach to incorporating best practices. In April of 2014, the state’s fourth drug court conference was held in Missoula, Montana. Included in this most recent state-wide drug court conference were Operational Tune-up tracks for Family Drug Courts and Juvenile Drug Courts as well as presentations for adult drug court teams. Presentations focused on a wide variety of evidence-based practices including: Pathological Gambling, Psychopharmacology and the Substance Abuser, Offender Risk Assessment Tools, Understanding Stages of Change, Recovery Management, Motivational Interviewing, Using Incentives and Sanction in Juvenile Drug Courts, Veteran’s Services, PTSD and the Military, Working Effectively with Native Americans, Drug Testing Best Practices, Designer Drugs, and other topics, all resulting in team action plans to make a difference when teams return home.

In regards to previous evaluative efforts, no research team had conducted a comprehensive statewide process or outcome evaluation of Montana drug courts prior to the 2009 biennium. However, several drug courts had individually undertaken evaluative efforts in the past.

In May 2008, the OCA contracted with the University of Montana (UM) for a comprehensive cross-court program evaluation. Statewide data collection began in January 2008 with data collected for all drug court participants active on or after July 1, 2007. These newer efforts served to standardize the information emanating from existing courts, helped guide development of new courts, and provided ongoing data collection and program evaluation, which guided court improvement and reallocation of resources.

The UM research team and the OCA collaboratively refined data collection instruments and database specifications across all funded courts; these tools now meet national standards as set forth for data collection (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2002). The OCA and UM researchers designed and created variables and specialized data collection instruments to fit Montana’s unique needs as a rural state and to enable ongoing evaluation and improvements. Drug court coordinators from across the state met and developed performance indicators. It is these indicators that make up the report to the Montana Legislature every biennium and are consistent with indicators being collected by other states and at a national level.

During calendar year 2015, Montana drug courts will embark upon a peer-review process to review consistency of each drug court with fidelity to the new Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards Volume I issued by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in late, 2013. These standards are based on “reliable and convincing evidence demonstrating that a practice significantly improves outcomes.” In addition to these standards, other best practices have been added to the review process, again based on evidence that has been established at a national level as well as evidence-based and best practices develop by NPC Research (from over 140 drug court evaluations) and the Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation. In February of 2015 over a dozen peer reviewers will be trained to apply these standards and issue best practice tables (reports) to Montana drug courts to assure that Montana drug courts are maximizing their potential to help drug court participants enter long-term recovery and significantly reduce re-offense. This publication includes training materials for implementation of the peer review process.

Although the Office of the Court Administrator intends to implement a peer review process of evidence-based practices for all categories of drug courts in Montana, we will initially focus on adult drug courts (adult/DUI/Veterans/Co-Occurring). Adult drug courts are:

A specially designed court calendar or docket, the purposes of which are to (a) hold offenders accountable for their actions: (b) achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse among substance abusing offenders and to (c) increase the offender’s likelihood of successful habilitation through early continuous, and intense judicially supervised treatment, mandatory periodic drug testing, community supervision, and use of appropriate sanctions and incentives and other habilitation services.