In order to have the most successful effects in the community, justice program managers should continually seek feedback from participants and be flexible with their programs.
In the spring of 2020, following public health measures designed to slow the community spread of COVID-19, justice-led diversion programs across the United States implemented remote hearings and treatment services virtual.
“Court-led diversion programs” is an umbrella term that encompasses drug courts, opioid courts and recovery-oriented compliance cases. Although these models differ in their design, they share the common characteristics of early intervention, ongoing supervision, consistent forensic oversight, and a non-adversarial team approach emphasizing the provision of care. addiction treatment and recovery support services.
The changes in the COVID-19 era show that the digital divide is a real thing and that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer.
Court users constitute a complex clientele with different needs and varying perspectives on how they want courts to meet those needs. We need to figure out how to integrate their voices into the decisions we make regarding access to courts and services.
In conjunction with the National Center for State Courts and Wayne State University, my firm recently conducted a large-scale national review of virtual practices. We launched the study in the fall of 2020, six months after virtual services became standard practice in court-led diversion programs in the United States.
The objective of the evaluation team was to understand the experiences of program practitioners and program participants with this new way of doing business.
Obtaining the perspective of program practitioners – including judges, program coordinators, treatment providers, case managers, and community monitoring officers – also provides a better understanding of how well the process is working for members. of the public who use the programs.
The results of the preliminary study indicated that approximately half of the members of the court team indicated that they were very supportive of continuing to hold virtual hearings.
Practitioners who preferred virtual hearings often pointed out the benefits they saw for program participants. One respondent noted:
Virtual apparitions help give participants an ounce of normalcy in their lives as we help them achieve their goals. If they have to work on a regular court day, being able to call during a break means they can still appear and work.
Another benefit is specific to rural communities, where the growth of virtual services expands the number of treatment providers available beyond the geographic boundaries of the community.
Similar to the preferences expressed about court hearings, almost half of the treatment staff indicated a high level of support for continuing virtual treatment.
Treatment staff tended to focus on the flexibility of having options for different program participants. For example, one clinician noted:
For some of our clients, we’ve seen increased engagement, attendance, and progress with virtual processing. Other clients did not respond well to telehealth and began to disengage. They had to be redirected to in-person services.
Over 75% of court team members felt that there were barriers for program participants. Access to technology, access to Wi-Fi / Internet, and level of technology proficiency were among the barriers reported by program participants.
This has led to a split between those who support the continuation of virtual services after the pandemic and those who do not. That is, judges, court staff, and treatment providers who believed participants encountered barriers when accessing virtual services were less likely to support continuous virtual programming than those who did not perceive these obstacles.
The concern of these professionals underscores the importance of ensuring that court users have a role in this conversation and that we do not overestimate or underestimate the needs of the clientele.
Beginning in March 2021, the evaluation team set out to listen to the voices of participants enrolled in justice-led programs through an online survey.
Preliminary results show that, overall, most participants want virtual options to continue as part of the court and treatment process, with around half of respondents expressing support for a fully virtual process.
The results also suggest fewer difficulties in accessing remote services than the judicial teams perceived. For example, 89.8% of respondents said they had a reliable internet connection to participate in services virtually, 92.4% indicated that they had the necessary equipment to participate in services virtually, and 90.3% stated that they are comfortable with the technology to participate in the services virtually.
As one participant noted, “It’s kinda difficult for those of us who are in a bind because our phone service is sometimes a bit sketchy. But I think it’s so much better virtually. I’m still trying to get used to it, but I think it will only get better with time. “
By connecting and paying attention to participants like this, program managers can address reported challenges. Potential barriers can include a lack of internet-enabled devices or phones, an unstable internet connection, and insufficient data to cover hearing and treatment sessions.
To overcome these obstacles, many courts are setting up so-called Zoom rooms in the courthouse, where participants without devices or Internet access can connect virtually. Treatment providers create similar virtual access points at their sites.
While this practice does not necessarily have to continue after the pandemic, it does demonstrate the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Additionally, some court programs have chosen to purchase phones for those who do not have their own phones and / or sufficient data plans.
Court staff working in court-led programs also ensure that new participants know how to log into virtual sessions.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, other barriers to telehealth delivery were also removed. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have put in place temporary measures as part of the public health emergency declaration.
This includes expanding the types of services covered (including many behavioral health services), equating reimbursement rates for telehealth services for face-to-face and outpatient visits, and eliminating the video requirement for certain assessment and management services, allowing telephone audio-communication only.
Some states have also waived Medicaid’s requirement that a patient see a provider in person before using telehealth. Many private insurers allow similar or greater flexibility.
Making these types of changes permanent would create the kind of accommodation that many participants need to be successful in their programs.
As the courts reinvent how they work, they should strive to reach and help as many people as possible.
More research is needed to understand the long-term implications of virtual participation on program outcomes. However, if court-led diversion programs are able to achieve similar results through virtual services to what they do in person, this will expand access and facilitate additional connections to treatment services.
What is most important is to listen to the voices of the participants in the program. Perceptions that program participants give all negative feedback or don’t want to provide feedback at all is incorrect based on current research.
Practitioners involved in court-led diversion programs can dramatically improve their success by soliciting the opinions of those who participate in their programs, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their program, embracing how technology can increase performance. access and efficiency and evolving to meet the needs of their communities.
Tara Kunkel is Founder and Executive Director of Rulo Strategies LLC.
“Perspectives” is a regular article written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To submit article ideas, email [email protected]
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be construed as legal advice.