New Equity Tool For Drug Courts Has Broader Potential

By: Fred L. Cheesman II, Ph.D.

Courts Featured Jurisdictions Racial Disparities February 2, 2021

People of color and other diverse groups should not be denied fair access to drug court and the support needed to successfully complete it. A new tool has the potential to reduce racial and other inequities that currently exist in such courts across the country.

Drug court is often the last chance for many people to stay connected to their community rather than spend time in jail or prison. That means it’s particularly important that we don’t deny that opportunity to anyone because of biased decision-making.

Drug courts want to be fair but disparities exist. For example, many drug courts’ retention rates are lower for Black people than white people, which means more Black people end up going to prison or jail. The data also shows that there are racial disparities with being admitted to drug court in the first place – in other words, whether people even offered the opportunity.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) says it is up to drug courts to find inequities and address them. But courts need some help. That’s why the National Center for State courts partnered with NADCP to develop a new equity tool, the Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool that gives drug courts the means to assess where they stand on inclusion and equity. It helps courts analyze referrals by race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, and sexual orientation.

It is an easy-to-use spreadsheet-based tool designed to be accessible to almost any court, providing useful summary statistics and graphics to assist with data interpretation. It is the diagnostic component of a suite of tools and responsive actions developed by NADCP to promote inclusion and equity in drug courts. Such steps include rewriting curricula to be more inclusive and hiring more Black case workers. These tools are consistent with best practice for fostering racial equity in the criminal justice system more broadly.

There is broad interest in the tool, with almost 400 people attending a webinar to introduce it. Since its launching in August 2020, the tool has been implemented by numerous jurisdictions. For example, Minnesota is pilot-testing the EIAT in 13 drug courts to determine its suitability for use in that state as a prelude to possible statewide implementation. Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington are using the Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool to assess equity and inclusion in the drug courts with which they work. We have also been approached by software firms that develop databases for drug courts that seek to incorporate the logic embedded in the assessment tool into their databases. This is a very promising development that will certainly promote the use of the tool and the logic underlying it. Further, some of the sites that participated in our pilot study before the release of the tool to the field more generally have used the information generated by it to take affirmative steps to address problems.

It’s good that we aren’t sweeping disparities under the rug. I have been working on drug courts for years. Defense attorneys could make the argument that these courts aren’t doing all they can to be fair, and they cite statistics showing that Black clients have less chance of succeeding in drug court than white clients do. Against this backdrop, it is important these courts come into compliance.

The Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool is also designed to examine inclusion and equity in drug courts with respect to several other demographic characteristics, including age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Further, since the tool provides users with pull-down menus to identify reasons for failure to admit candidates for drug court as well as similar menus to identify reasons for failure to successfully complete drug court, it will be possible to better understand the decision points that result in differential inclusion and equity by race other characteristics.

To maximize the utility of the Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool, drug courts will be required to track data that many have not tracked in the past. Importantly, drug courts must record data on the characteristics of referrals and must track referrals to the point of admission and beyond to the point of drug court completion. Most drug courts also do not currently record data on sexual orientation or data required to identify gender identity.

There is potential for huge change with this tool beyond drug courts. We’re also getting enquiries from other types of problem-solving courts. Mental health courts as well as juvenile drug courts are asking if this can help them address equity. And the answer is “yes.” This method could work in any number of different types of problem-solving courts, as well as more mainstream courts interested in investigating the fairness of their processes.

Folks interested in the tool may also wish to check out the article published earlier this year in the Justice System Journal that describes the evolution of the Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool from a performance measure to a tool. Results from the pilot-testing are also expected to be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year year. I’m eager to engage with cities and countries as part of our work with the Safety and Justice Challenge.

The Equity and Inclusion Assessment Tool and NADCP’s Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards on Equity and Inclusion, which the assessment tool supports, are consistent with the Safety and Justice Challenge’s goal to address racial disparities in incarceration.

—Fred Cheesman is a Principal Court Research Consultant at the National Center for State Courts.