Judges, Court Staff Essential to Drug Court Growth

January 29, 2020

Recovery courts, one of the judiciary’s most powerful tools to combat substance abuse, reduce costs, and put lives back on track, have seen a remarkable growth in Tennessee in recent years. Since 2013, there has been a 67 percent increase in the number of recovery courts in the state — starting at 49 and increasing to 82—including family treatment courts, safe baby courts, mental health courts, veteran’s courts, and more. At the helm of each court is a judge, who takes on the challenge to make a difference in the community and who does not receive extra compensation or benefits for the work.

This increase in the number of recovery courts in the state has been driven largely by a growing awareness that addiction is not just a problem that can be incarcerated away, but a disease that requires treatment. Recovery courts give people a way to access that treatment, and their effectiveness in lowering rates of recidivism, among other positive outcomes, has been well-proven in recent years.

In late December, 29 of the state’s drug court judges expanded their knowledge of addiction, treatment options, relapse, case management, and more at the Tennessee Association of Recovery Court Professionals’ 15th Annual Recovery Court Conference.

At the conference, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee spoke of his personal commitment to the pursuit of criminal justice reform and to the continued growth of recovery courts. He said that recovery court judges and staff have a key role to play in the move to reform the criminal justice system in the state.

“I’m honored to do it with you, and I need your help,” he said. “We are going to do some great work over the next number of years to transform people’s lives, reduce crime, [and] save taxpayers’ money.”

Today, 82 drug-related courts provide services to 86 out of Tennessee’s 95 counties, covering almost the entire state.

“To date we are serving every county that has expressed interest, and we truly hope to get to all 95,” said Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner. “And how will we do that? By you that are judges and staff reaching out to those counties saying, ‘come along, there is so much we can do together to make a difference in this state.’”

Equally as striking is the enormous surge in recovery court funding that has accompanied the growth in the number of courts. In fiscal year 2013, the total amount of funding for recovery courts in the state stood at $11.5 million. Through the diligent advocacy and hard work of legislators and staff in state government that number has grown to $31.1 million in the current fiscal year.

That money has been put to good use. Over 10,000 people have been admitted to recovery court programs in the state during the period covered, Commissioner Williams said. Forty-six percent of those successfully completed their programs.

“Compared to the national statistics, 46 percent is great,” Commissioner Williams said.

Of those who have graduated from their programs, 80 percent have seen improved employment and 74 percent have experienced improved housing.

The state has seen a huge uptick in resources for those with substance abuse disorders outside of recovery courts as well. Commissioner Williams drew attention to the fact, for instance, that the state has gone from having just six Oxford Houses for people in recovery in fiscal year 2014 to 102 this year. There are now 724 beds in the state for those in recovery.

There has been growth in the state’s pre-arrest diversion infrastructure, as well. Seven prearrest diversion sites have been funded, and from September 2017 to June 2019, 7,180 people were diverted from jail thanks to that infrastructure.

Significant growth has also been seen in other critical areas, including in the number of criminal justice liaisons, Tennessee Recovery Navigators, community anti-drug coalitions, and faith-based community resources.

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins encouraged attendees to continue their leadership in this area and shared accounts of seeing Tennesseans take prominent roles on the national stage during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.

“I am here to say how proud we are of what a leader Tennessee is in the nation as far as recovery courts are concerned,” he said. “Tennessee is recognized literally across this country as one of if not the preeminent leader in that field.”

One event he attended in Washington D.C. was an awards ceremony for 4th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone, who was named the 2019 recipient of the National Center for State Courts’ prestigious William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence. Judge Slone was recognized for his pioneering efforts to combat addiction through innovative strategies like the Tennessee Recovery Oriented Compliance Strategy docket, which has seen 110 neonatal abstinence syndrome-free births by program participants in recent years.

“That, ladies and gentlemen, is making a difference,” Chief Justice Bivins said.

Chief Justice Bivins also drew attention to the official rollout of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force’s final report, which was unveiled at the National Press Club. That task force was co-chaired by Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate.

That task force’s work represents “an incredible resource for judges and recovery court professionals that I would strongly encourage you to use,” Chief Justice Bivins said.

Despite all of the recent growth and progress, Commissioner Williams declared that the work is far from done. In the coming years, she is committed to increasing substance abuse clinical treatment dollars, expanding addiction recovery wraparound service programs, and adding more criminal justice liaisons, among other goals. She made it clear that these formidable tasks could only be accomplished by working together.

“In partnership with you, our community behavioral health providers, and with the support of the Administrative Office of the Courts, we will continue to further enhance recovery courts, criminal justice services, prevention, treatment, and recovery services for Tennesseans across this state,” she said.

Video of sessions from the Tennessee Association of Recovery Court Professionals Conference will be on the Tennessee Judicial Opioid Initiative website soon – www.tjoi.org