By design, the judicial system wields disconnection as a tool to gain compliance, police behavior, and execute punishment. Rules are standardized, personal histories often remain unconsidered, change is sought through punitive means, and people are, quite literally, numbers. Arguably, the dehumanization inherent in this approach perpetuates, at least in part, the very social problems it seeks to address.
As a movement, the treatment court model is itself an answer to the ineffectiveness of disconnection in promoting behavioral change for those who experience challenges with substance use and/or mental health. The philosophy of therapeutic jurisprudence, which underpins the treatment court model, emphasizes the potential for psychologically healthy outcomes when the legal system is structured as a “restorative, remedial, and healing instrument” (ISTJ, 2022; Kawalek, 2020, p. 2; Stobbs, 2019). Therapeutic jurisprudence is concerned with “the human effects of the law” and the promotion of practices to benefit the “emotional, psychological, physical, relational, economic, and social personhood” of participants (Kawalek, 2020, p. 1-2). Treatment courts offer an important opportunity to leverage the legal system to make meaningful changes in people’s lives.
Collaboration is perhaps the hallmark of treatment courts. In identifying best practices, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP, 2018b) emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach as well as complementary treatment and social services. Best practice standards also underscore the need for predictability, fairness, consistency, and evidenced-based principles for behavior modification in the operations of treatment courts—practices that cannot be actualized without both interdisciplinary and professional-participant collaboration. The NADCP standards further acknowledge the critical nature of attention to equity and inclusion for participant success; addressing historical patterns of discrimination and inequity certainly requires sincere collaboration (NADCP, 2018a).
The thread of collaboration can be traced back even further to NADCP’s earlier efforts to outline key components of treatment courts. NADCP names the “non-adversarial approach” as crucial to encourage collaborative, coordinated efforts to support participants (NADCP, 2004, p. 3). Another essential component is “ongoing judicial interaction with each treatment court participant,” a standard that explicitly highlights the need for an “active, supervising relationship” in service of increasing the likelihood of participant success (NADCP, 2004, p. 15). Emphasis is placed on early engagement with participants, interdisciplinarity, and “forging partnerships among treatment courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations” (NADCP, 2004, p. 23).
Without question, intentional, focused, collaborative relationships are central to the mission of the treatment court model, and such meaningful collaboration requires connection.
While scholars within psychology offer various conceptualization, social connection may be simply described as a sense of belonging, which can be derived from the experience of acceptance, concern, empathy, and care (Seppala, Rossomando, Doty, 2013). Arguably, a uniqueness of the treatment court model is the opportunity for social connection including
between participants and direct service providers (e.g., case managers, therapists), participants and others professionals (e.g., defense counsel, probation authorities, judges), as well as among the entire team of professionals collaborating with the participant. Notable to the treatment court approach is another, albeit a less obvious, opportunity for connection for participants—connection with self. That is, mental health service provision as well as case management services offer participants pathways to cultivating a sense of belonging to oneself through self-acceptance as well as concern, empathy, and care for the self. Lastly, treatment court professionals benefit greatly from being in connection with the self, too, which is helpful for both their own wellbeing and positioning them to be present and skillful in working with participants.
Connection—whether it be with self, others, or larger systems—is the nexus of change.
When participants are connected with themselves, they are best positioned to understand the influence of the past upon the present, identify their needs and values, establish goals, and take meaningful, congruent choices to shape their lives. The connection between professionals and participants results in participants feeling seen, heard, understood, and supported—often catalysts to personal growth and change. A treatment court team member’s own capacity to stay in connection with oneself results in the ability to embody professional values, utilize knowledge from their training, and effectively engage with participants. Further, professionals do not operate in a vacuum; connected collaborations, systems, and institutions result in stronger collaborations, systems, and institutions. The practices, processes, and policies of these larger entities matter—they can either reflect an investment in connection or disconnection. The ultimate goal of the treatment court model is to reduce recidivism through substance use and/or mental health treatment, and the means by which this goal is achieved is, in fact, staying in connection—perhaps the most essential, yet most unrecognized, practice necessitated by the treatment court model philosophy.
If connection is the birthplace of behavioral change, five primary questions emerge:
- How can treatment court practitioners stay in connection with themselves to be able to engage with participants skillfully?
- How can treatment court practitioners stay in connection with participants?
- How can treatment court practitioners support participants to stay in connection with themselves?
- What does a connected treatment court team look like? How can connection be cultivated and reflected in practices, processes, and policies?
- What does a connected criminal justice system look like? How can connection be cultivated and reflected in practices, processes, and policies?
In the Connection series, we will examine these questions as to untangle the rewarding, nuanced, and challenging aspects of working in treatment courts.