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Drug courts engage in more precise assessment of individual needs

June 23, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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As a punishment-focused approach to drug-involved offenders gave way to a treatment-centered outlook in many communities around the country, the pendulum swung dramatically toward offering everyone the same treatment regardless of the severity of their problems. Yet in recent years, that in turn has given way to matching services to individual needs, and an organization instrumental in making that happen saw its assessment tool reach its 250th drug court jurisdiction this month.

The Treatment Research Institute's (TRI's) trademarked RANT (Risk and Needs Triage), a commercial product, is an evidence-based instrument that allows problem-solving courts to assess individuals' level of risk and need in order to determine the appropriate level of services. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) now recommends in its practice guidelines that drug courts use some type of assessment to triage eligible offenders based on risk and need.

“Some courts have developed tracks based on the four quadrants of high-risk/high-need, high-risk/low-need, low-risk/high-need, and low-risk/low-need,” says David Festinger, PhD, director of the Philadelphia-based TRI's Law & Ethics Section. He adds, “RANT was developed based on research suggesting that one size doesn't fit all.”

Looking at the science

The 19-question RANT instrument, which TRI developed and pilot-tested with Hennepin County, Minn., around a decade ago, is designed to bring scientific factors into the decision-making around programs diverting drug-involved offenders from incarceration to treatment. Festinger says, “A judge will never base everything on science, but a little evidence can go a long way toward informing sentencing.”

The assessment is administered directly to offenders, but also can be used with collateral sources to corroborate information gathered in the self-report, Festinger says. TRI generally makes the instrument available to drug courts via a licensing fee arrangement. The RANT is now used in 31 states, Festinger says.

The questions in the assessment address topics such as how early the individual became involved in substance use, what prior treatment experiences he/she received, and whether there appears to be a genetic link to addiction in the person's family.

Festinger says that drug courts are best suited and most cost-effective for higher-risk, higher-need offenders. Low-risk, low-need offenders may not require the same intensity of treatment and supervision. In general, he adds, “There is some evidence that you should segregate high- and low-risk offenders.”

TRI developed the RANT amid a period in which drug courts weren't applying the science-based knowledge suggesting that levels of supervision should be based on an assessment of risk. Festinger points out that while matching services to individuals needs is critical, it is also important for programs to be adaptive to offenders' changing circumstances as they proceed through a program. “People are dynamic,” he says.