Given the increasing rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide and CDC guidance, courts across the country have suspended operations and many, such as Vermont and Pennsylvania, have declared judicial emergencies. Such judicial emergencies allow for an orderly suspension of court operations, delaying deadlines and allowing for teleconferencing as appropriate.¹
Drug courts and other specialty courts such as mental health courts require a great deal of interaction between the judge, court staff, and the court participants. Given the unique nature of these courts and the need to practice social distancing, particularly for individuals who are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine, how should drug courts respond? What are best practices for drug courts seeking to support their participants and help them maintain their work toward recovery? Below are recommendations for drug courts.
- Understand that these are not normal times. While drug courts call for fidelity to the drug court model for success, everything in our society is in a state of flux. Therefore, understanding and patience should be paramount.
- The most important thing to do right now is to protect the public health. The CDC has issued guidelines to prevent a spike in new cases, basic hand washing techniques, social distancing, and preventing the spread of disease should all be prioritized if courts continue operations. This can include staggering, limiting, or suspending drug testing and maximizing use of telephonic alternatives, consistent with guidance issued by the federal government and states.
- Drug court participants, as well as court staff, may be experiencing a great deal of stress right now. If your court is still operational, consider using technology for remote court appearances and status hearings, individual clinical check-ins, staffing participation, interventions, and screening/assessment to treatment.
- Sources of income may be lost and unemployment benefits may lag. Paying for transportation to court, court fees and drug testing fees, and co-payments for medications may become impossible. Courts should work with drug court participants to connect them with social services to help with stability in these uncertain times. Courts should consider suspending fees and providing alternatives to drug tests that may cause a participant to choose between food for themselves or their family and being in compliance with a court ordered drug test.
- Correctional settings are high risk settings for outbreaks of infectious disease, including COVID-19. Some drug courts order participants back to jail if the individual is not in compliance with a drug court rule. Barring a serious or violent crime, drug courts should not use jail as a sanction. Increasing the number of people in correctional settings during this pandemic should not be an option.
Maintaining the safety and mental health of your participants and staff should be top of mind right now.
Courts can serve as an information source for the multiple online meetings and resources available for individuals who participate in peer support groups. These are unprecedented times, but this can also be an opportunity for drug court staff to find new ways to strengthen their therapeutic alliances with participants.
Links to online recovery support, national resources for treatment courts and other relevant guidance can be found at National Association for Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) COVID-19 Resource Page: https://www.nadcp.org/covid-19-resources/
National Center for State Courts State-by-State Court Information for COVID-19: https://www.ncsc.org/Newsroom/Public-health-emergency.aspx
Regina LaBelle is director of the Addiction & Public Policy Initiative and Distinguished Scholar at at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law Center and served as chief of staff in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration.
Shelly R. Weizman is associate director of the Addiction & Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is the former Assistant Secretary for Mental Hygiene in the Office of the Governor of New York State and is a person in long-term recovery
¹ Not all states have legislation allowing for the declaration of judicial emergencies. Several states passed such laws in the aftermath of 9/11. For more information see https://www.ncsc.org/microsites/trends/home/Monthly-Trends-Articles/2017/Maintaining-Court-Operations-When-Disaster-Strikes-Emergency-Powers.aspx