Using Technology To Assist Treatment Court Participants in the Age of COVID-19

By Susan Sturges and Steven Helfont

May 14, 2021

Using Technology To Assist Treatment Court Participants in the Age of COVID-19


By Susan Sturges and Steven Helfont

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate, drastic and in some respects permanent impact on the New York State Unified Court System. For New York’s hundreds of treatment courts that are built upon close judicial monitoring, specialized services, comprehensive case management and frequent random drug and alcohol testing, this impact was viewed by some as insurmountable. But they were wrong. The dedicated judges and professionals who work in these courts were not deterred and have overcome significant challenges to continue their work remotely and provide critical services to New Yorkers with substance use disorders and mental illness.

In early 2020, court administrators began to rethink and reinvent operations at every level. Led by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the UCS quickly transitioned from in-person to virtual operations when the outbreak began. Treatment courts, which provide defendants with substance and/or mental health disorders an opportunity to participate in court-supervised behavioral health treatment and supportive services to address the underlying issues that brought them into the criminal justice system, were particularly well-positioned to meet the challenges of operating in this new environment, thanks to a 2018 federally funded grant project designed to incorporate technology into the courtroom. As a result, prior to the pandemic, several jurisdictions were already using teleservices to help participants in residential treatment programs appear remotely for court hearings. This existing framework allowed treatment courts to swiftly shift operations to connect with and support participants when the COVID-19 outbreak began.

Notwithstanding, operating treatment courts remotely has been challenging. From the beginning, the pandemic intensified problems faced by many New Yorkers and resulted in heightened emotional distress due to fear, isolation and loneliness. In addition, statewide stay-at-home orders left many participants struggling to meet basic needs. Hit hard by the financial impact of the pandemic, many participants quickly became focused on finding ways to put food on the table and maintain housing. Difficulties meeting their basic needs led some to prioritize their survival over the recovery process. Treatment court staff universally and immediately recognized that the stress, anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the complexities of this crisis would adversely affect many of their participants, especially those who were dealing with comorbid health and/or mental health disorders. Participant struggles were further complicated by obstacles accessing treatment services. Quarantine and social distancing mandates disrupted the systems of care needed to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment, life-saving medications, and supportive services to participants. This disruption in care, combined with the emotional distress and social isolation caused by the pandemic, further exacerbated their struggles and contributed to relapses.

Concerned about the sudden lack of structure and diminished accountability for participants, treatment courts throughout the state adjusted operations toward helping those who needed it most and using remote technology to connect with and help participants navigate these challenging times. For those participants with access to a computer or smartphone, case managers communicated using Skype and Microsoft Teams. Participants without internet access were contacted via phone. Regardless of the method of communication, court staff were determined to find the best way to hold regular meetings with participants and conduct wellness checks about their health and treatment regime.

Today, more than a year after this transition process began, a gradual return to in-person operations is underway, but technology remains a useful tool to integrate compliance monitoring and critical treatment services. Staff use tablets to help new participants sign consent forms and virtually monitor their progress and compliance. Conducted remotely, initial assessments determine eligibility and inform treatment planning while reassessments of existing participants allow staff to identify a change in symptoms or needs. Based upon these assessments, treatment court staff refer participants to treatment and/or social services to help them stay engaged in their recovery process and advance through the various phases of treatment court.

Beyond wellness checks, treatment courts also use remote technology and teleservices to host official court proceedings and hearings. These court appearances, which are the backbone of judicial monitoring, serve as a forum for participants to discuss their progress and receive encouragement from the judge and treatment court team. Prior to COVID-19, participant progress and treatment court graduation ceremonies were celebrated in-person, but court staff have worked to ensure that their virtual versions are just as meaningful. In fact, virtual graduation ceremonies have allowed participants’ friends, family and loved ones, who would not otherwise be able to attend, to join the proceedings.

In addition to leveraging technology to conduct court proceedings and support treatment court participants, the Office for Justice Initiatives’ Division of Policy and Planning (DPP) is using technology to support treatment court staff and help them adapt to these unprecedented times. Under the leadership and guidance of Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Edwina Mendelson, DPP oversees and provides technical support to more than 300 problem-solving and accountability courts throughout the state, including opioid and drug courts, veterans’ courts, domestic violence and integrated domestic violence courts, family treatment courts, impaired driving courts, mental health courts and human trafficking intervention courts. This work never stopped, even when the pandemic was at its peak. Working with community partners last spring, DPP staff hosted several virtual training series to provide treatment court staff with the skills and resources they need to supplement their work in this changing environment. For example, over 150 treatment court staff and community partners participated in a virtual training of two evidence-based cognitive behavioral interventions: Interactive Journaling and Moral Reconation Therapy. Both interventions can be conducted virtually to engage participants in the treatment process and promote a change in attitudes and behaviors.

To maximize resources and find new ways of engaging with participants, DPP also organized a series of webinars for court staff on the importance of peer recovery support services. With assistance from the nonprofit research and consulting organization, Altarum, the Office of Addiction Services and Supports and the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York, experts shared strategies to incorporate peers into opioid courts and discussed how to utilize technology to support peer services.

Knowing that the devastating consequences of the opioid epidemic were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, several courts also began to host virtual stakeholder meetings to develop specialized services for those at high risk of overdose. In fact, the Unified Court System opened five opioid courts since the pandemic started, most recently in Beacon, New York. The convenience of remotely connecting to stakeholder meetings has allowed for greater participation in the planning process from the court system’s community partners, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and probation. It has also allowed DPP to move forward with the development of treatment courts in order to expeditiously reach at-risk and underserved populations.

Technology has been especially helpful to the volunteers who work with our veterans’ treatment courts. Referred to as mentors, these veterans, many of whom have recovered from their own substance abuse issues, have dedicated their time to assist and support other treatment court veterans in their recovery. Since the pandemic began, DPP staff have worked directly with veteran mentors to teach them how to engage with court participants virtually. Initially, some mentors had difficulty accessing and utilizing our virtual platforms. However, with technical assistance from court staff, all the mentors became comfortable using the technology. Participants were also provided with technical assistance to help them connect with their mentors and court staff for support.

Again, working remotely has presented its challenges, but it has not slowed down the remarkable work of treatment courts or the resolve of their team members. Recognizing the enduring impact that the pandemic has already had on our communities, but knowing that the pandemic will eventually come to an end, courts are now hard at work trying to find the ideal balance between virtual services and the need for in-person interventions. What matters is that our treatment courts never stopped serving as a source of support and structure for justice-involved individuals in need of drug treatment and mental health services. To the contrary, embracing technology allowed treatment court staff to maintain contact with participants and monitor progress and compliance through virtual hearings. Training and education programs continued as well. Capitalizing on the convenience of technology and the ease of joining meetings remotely, courts have been able to reach a more comprehensive group of stakeholders and move forward in the planning of opioid courts and other problem-solving courts.

Technology has been instrumental in keeping treatment courts functioning during this health crisis, but it has also opened new opportunities for community engagement. As we continue to adjust to these changes and incorporate technology into court operations, treatment courts will continue to find innovative ways to reach participants and help save lives.

Susan Sturges and Steven Helfont are both employed by the New York State Unified Court System’s Office for Justice Initiatives, Division of Policy and Planning, under the direction of Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Edwina G. Mendelson. Sturges serves as opioid court project director. Helfont is director of the division of policy and planning.

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