The Path to Justice in a Court-Based Drug Treatment Program

1. Introduction

Research has shown that people who graduate from drug treatment programs are less likely to re-offend.Footnote 1 However, the proportion of participants in drug treatment programs who graduate is typically low. Clearly, the low success rate diminishes the potential impact of drug treatment programs. Therefore, an important policy issue is why some people graduate from the program while others do not. Any measures that could increase the number of people who graduate would improve the effectiveness of drug treatment programs.

This study takes an access to justice approach in attempting to understand why some treatment program participants successfully complete the program while others do not. The basic methodology used in this study is adapted from an approach developed to study access to justice by measuring the cost and quality of approaches to resolve legal problems and disputes. The approach was originally designed to measure how well different approaches to resolving disputes in civil law provide access to justice for the users. The basic idea is that people want to achieve justice when they engage in any problem solving strategy, with justice defined as a fair process and a just outcome at reasonable or acceptable cost.

Any problem-solving mechanism is a path to justice. A path to justice is, simply, an approach people employ to achieve an outcome to a legal problem. The path to justice metaphor can be applied to processes to resolve many types of problems or disputes, for example, an unfair dismissal from employment or a criminal procedure for the victim of a robbery or an assault.Footnote 3 In this study, the drug treatment program is a path to justice, chosen by the individual as an alternative to the regular criminal court process.

The indicators of justice used to measure this or, in theory, any path to justice represent different dimensions of justice that were drawn from a review of the literature carried out by Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Civil Law and Conflict Resolution (TISCO).Footnote 4 An important feature of this approach is that the quality of the treatment program is measured from the point of view of the individuals experiencing the process, not from the point of view of the system.Footnote 5 This reflects the underlying perspective that while justice is often said to be administered, it is also a feeling. If a process is felt to be fair it is more likely to have a positive impact on the individuals experiencing it.Footnote 6

Participant’s views are measured specifically in terms of dimensions of justice, not whether they are “satisfied” in a general way with aspects of the program. It is assumed that everyone has a commonsense view of what justice is, reflecting the importance of justice as a fundamental cultural value. Therefore, people will have an intuitive sense of whether their experience in the drug treatment program represents justice. To the extent that participants perceive their experience in the program as reflecting this sense of justice, in theory, they should be more successful in the program. The program is providing them with access to justice. This has significant implications for the development and delivery of drug treatment programs.

This study does not attempt to compare the cost and quality of the justice provided by different approaches such as the therapeutic approach compared with the regular court process. From a policy perspective, there was no interest in comparing the regular criminal court versus the therapeutic process. For purposes of this study the low success rate of individuals completing the program is the policy problem, not whether a therapeutic court/treatment process serves people better than the regular criminal court process. Therefore, this research compares the perceptions of drug court participants who graduated from the program with those who were discharged before completing it on measures of access to justice representing the extent to which the drug treatment program provided them with a fair and just process.Footnote 7

2. Methodology

The research was carried out at the Ottawa Drug Treatment Court and the Rideauwood Addiction Family Services Centre in Ottawa. The Ottawa drug treatment program is relatively small with about 30 active participants at any given time. The small size made the Ottawa court an ideal location for research which was, in effect, an experiment to adapt the TISCO methodology that, as indicated above, had initially been designed to measure the quality of civil dispute resolution approaches to a criminal law context. Another difference from the original methodology is that the TISCO method was designed to compare different approaches to resolving a type of dispute. This study experiments with a very different application of the methodology comparing two groups of participants within the same program.

The TISCO methodology is built around three clusters of indicators: the cost of the process, the quality of the process and the quality of the outcome. The three main clusters include nine specific dimensions of justice. The specific dimensions used in this study are: restorative justice, interpersonal justice, informational justice, transparency, functionality, monetary cost, opportunity costs and intangible costs.Footnote 8 Table I shows the dimensions of justice that were used in this study.

Table I: Dimensions of Justice Used in the Drug Treatment Research

Cost of Justice
Monetary Costs Out-of-pocket costs for transportation, lunches, clothes etc…
Opportunity Costs Activities with either monetary or affective value that are foregone in order to participate in the treatment program, such as employment opportunity, family obligations etc.
Intangible Costs Stress or other emotional costs such as loneliness, disappointment, hopelessness etc.
Quality of the Procedure
Procedural Justice Ability to express views during the process; views and feelings were considered during the process, able to influence the outcome,Footnote 9 process was based on accurate information; felt the process was fair; satisfied with the process
Interpersonal Justice Treated in a polite and respectful manner by court officials and treatment personnel; court officials and treatment personnel did not make improper comments; court officials and treatment personnel did their best to produce a good outcome; court officials and treatment personnel were honest in their communication.
Informational Justice Officials explained the process thoroughly; rights and options were explained clearly; understood all explanations and information; information was communicated in a timely manner; opportunities were provided to ask for clarification.
Quality of the Outcome
Functionality Did the outcome improve damaged relationships with significant others or are relationships improving at this point in the treatment process; did the outcome solve your problem or is it solving your problem at this point; was the outcome effective in ensuring that you will be able to avoid the behaviour that caused the problem or is it doing so to this point.
Transparency Was it possible for you to compare your outcome with people in similar situations; did you receive a clear explanation of outcomes from court officials and treatment personnel; were you satisfied with the explanations you received.

Data were gathered over a 14-month period from June 2011 to August 2012 by means of a series of semi-structured interviews with each DTC client who agreed to participate in the research. A total of 35 individuals participated in this study, including 8 former DTCO participants who attended the program between January 2010 and May 2011. Participation was voluntary and involved participating in a maximum of four in-person interviews. The interviews were approximately 30 to 45 minutes in length. Respondents were asked to make assessments of aspects of the program using closed questions in which respondents indicated agreement on a 5-point Likert scale. These questions were indicators of the various access to justice dimensions, for example the restorative justice aspect of outcomes or the transparency of the process. The individual indicators were averaged to produce overall indexes for the main dimensions of justice. Information about time spent and monetary costs were recorded directly. In order to provide in-depth and contextual information respondents were also encouraged to elaborate on their feelings about particular aspects of the program.

The original plan was for all individuals to be interviewed four times during the course of the study; first upon entering the program, after they had been in the program for about four months, again at about the seven-month point and a final time when they either graduated or were discharged from the program. However, it was not always possible to carry out two interviews between the initial and final ones for people who were discharged because of the short length of time in the program. Only three participants were interviewed twice between the first and last interviews. The scores for these individuals were combined. Therefore, for purposes of presenting the data, three interviews are reported. The interviews were mainly carried out at Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, scheduled at a time when the DTC participant was there for their individual counseling. Occasionally, interviews were carried out at the court building for the convenience of DTC participants or, out of necessity, at the court remand facility when lapses in participant’s abstention resulted in their having been arrested.

2.1 The Ottawa Drug Treatment Program

The Ottawa Drug Treatment Court is a non-adversarial, court-monitored drug treatment program. After a screening process, offenders whose offences are driven by a substance addiction are admitted to the treatment program. This 9-12 month long program requires that each individual’s progress is monitored by a judge and by the drug treatment team in weekly pre-court meetings, regular court appearances. During the weekly court appearances, a judge actively supervises the individual offender’s progress and provides sanctions for non-compliance. A legal aid lawyer and a special public prosecutor are assigned to the drug court on a continuous basis. They are not the same lawyers who would have initially dealt with the offenders in the regular criminal courts before the individuals began the drug treatment program.

Results of this study are specific to the Ottawa Drug Treatment Court Program and cannot be generalized to any other Drug Treatment Court Program in Canada. Data gathered for this study are based on DTCO participants’ perceptions, such that it may be limited by memory and attention bias.Footnote 10


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