The Sin of the Missed Opportunity to Engage Participants-The Court Hearing

Written by Martha Elin-Blomquist

Most Juvenile Drug Courts (JDCs) understand that their mission is to use therapeutic jurisprudence to reduce substance use and other criminal behavior by providing youth with healing services and supervision.  They offer treatment, support services, prosocial activities, incentives, and frequent drug testing to bring about positive changes in a youth’s behavior. 

However, when it comes to the court hearing, some JDCs lose their focus on being therapeutic.  Instead they emphasize jurisprudence and legal process. In doing so, they miss opportunities for making meaningful connections with youth and families.

Many JDC hearings start with calling a youth’s case number for the record. This is followed by each legal team member - prosecutor, probation officer, and/or defense attorney – remarking on the youth’s behavior and any legal or compliance issues that have arisen. Eventually, the judge speaks directly to the youth and family members and asks how things have gone since the last hearing. The judge gives praise for progress and  identifies the issue before the court – a sanction concerning a dirty drug test or an incentive for program compliance. The hearing is concluded when the judge issues orders and sets the next hearing date. The hearing lasts 3-5 minutes and then the next youth’s case is called. Youth participants and their family members sit through an hour’s worth of hearings, all involving a similar process to the one described above. After the very last hearing, the judge adjourns court.

Focusing court time on so much process and reporting (without a specific and intended purpose) instead of on youth and family engagement can be considered one of the 7 deadly sins.

What would be a more therapeutic and engaging approach to court hearings? What would help participants feel that they matter and give them hope that they can achieve good outcomes with something they have failed at in the past?

Short-Term Solution:

Judges should use court time for their interaction with participants. Research indicates that a judge’s relationship with JDC participants is important to positive outcomes. Court time is the only time judges have to see youth and caregivers and hear from them directly. Judges can summarize for the youth and family what was discussed at a case staffing and may note if there were any differences in perspectives among team members. But primarily, the judge should focus on speaking with the youth and family and asking questions that engage the family in conversation rather than in providing yes or no responses. 

JDCs should promote a positive and respectful atmosphere from the moment participants walk into the courtroom.  The judge’s first words at the start of a court session should include a welcome and an appreciation for everyone’s efforts to be in court. To benefit participants and promote their sense of inclusion, the judge should identify who the professionals in the room are and explain the purpose of the hearing.  The judge should also convey the message that families are part of the team.  Positive reinforcement (such as group applause) during the hearing in response to desired behavior that youth and caregivers have engaged in (e.g., attending all appointments, completing school assignments) should be given. And the judge’s last words should include thanking participants for coming and wishing them well. 

Long-Term Solution:

Implement procedures for using the Rocket Docket and a fishbowl drawing as program-wide incentives to reinforce behavior.

Implement procedures for using interactive exercises like the Youth Progress Report to help prepare youth and caregivers to engage with the judge during the hearing about things that matter to them.