Treatment Courts and Law Enforcement Working Together to Heal with Vanessa Matthews
During this interview from RISE23, hear from Vanessa Matthews, Director of the Treatment Court Institute at All Rise.
During the interview, Ms. Matthews discusses how her background as a law enforcement officer helped lead to her involvement in getting a treatment court set up in Oklahoma.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Now, I know that you have a background as a law enforcement officer, correct?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: Yes.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: You were a police officer in Oklahoma City for over 22 years?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: Yes.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So what made you want to get involved in treatment courts?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: That's a great question. And here's the thing, when I first started hearing about treatment courts, I was like, "Great, this is an opportunity to get all these folks with drug issues off the streets, just send them to jail," because that's what I thought in my mind. I hadn't had any training about it, I didn't know. But at the core of that was the issue that I was working the last eight years of my career in the height of the methamphetamine epidemic in Oklahoma. And it was arresting the same people over and over again without any change in their environment, in their circumstances, or services to those individuals. And when I finally learned a little bit more about treatment courts, I thought, "Let me give this a try, this might be the answer that we need to at least impact it—impact it in some way."
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So you were involved in getting a treatment court set up in Oklahoma?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: Yes. Oklahoma County Treatment Court, I was one of the founding members of that court. I actually served as the law enforcement liaison and as well as the coordinator for a little while with that program. But—and it's doing quite well now. It's continued to grow.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Oh, that's awesome. So as someone who has really seen a treatment court grow from its infancy, what do you see as the key to success for a treatment court?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: That's a great question that I would like everyone to really know about, and that is simply this: Everyone must be bought into it from the top down. If leadership is not bought into it, the program is not going to work because you're going to have—you’re not going to have that full commitment. And one of the keys to that is making sure that every entity that is involved in that treatment court program has knowledge of substance use disorder and mental health issues, especially law enforcement, because we know that law enforcement is the first intersect point for someone to become involved in the criminal justice system. So we want them to be able to ask the question, "Is this a person that's appropriate for a treatment court program or is there some other diversionary method that may be out there that may include harm reduction or some things like that for that individual?"
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So that's great advice for any city or town that's trying to think about, get—developing a treatment court in their jurisdiction. What other advice would you have for some new courts that are looking to establish themselves?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: One of the big things is to really, really, really know the community that you're working in, know what the prevalence of drugs are, and what drugs are most prevalent. In some areas, it's going to be things like fentanyl now, is the big thing that we're really struggling with. But in other areas, in your more rural populations, you may be still looking at methamphetamines. In your urban areas, you may be looking at marijuana and alcohol.
So the key to it is really doing that survey to know, looking at who you are arresting and what those charges are that those individuals are getting arrested for. And I always encourage jurisdictions when they're thinking about starting a court to go to the medical examiner's office and take a look at the years' toxicology reports because that will give them a great answer into what's there and what's out there.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right. So the—I mean, the entire treatment court experience is supposed to be very highly individual. So why do you think that that individualization is so important for men and women to be successful in their recovery from substance use?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: This was a learning point for me in the beginning because I did think that everyone should be treated the same. If you have an addiction to alcohol, then we treat everyone with that addiction the same. But what I later found out is, is that that real underlying issue is what you have to be able to focus on. And the majority of the folks that we serve in treatment courts, their underlying issue is actually trauma. And so what that means is, is if two people come into a treatment court program, both of them addicted to methamphetamine, there's a different nexus to why they started using, so that's how you have to treat it. And I always tell folks, when you've seen one reason for someone coming into the treatment court system, you've seen one reason.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Love that. Really love that. What excites or inspires you about the future of treatment courts?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: Well, it’ll probably be a smaller answer to tell you what doesn't because I'm so excited about everything that we're doing in this next phase of treatment courts with the research and the best practice standards and training courts, and even reaching our—what I call outlier jurisdictions. You know, we're doing training in Puerto Rico. We're doing training in Saipan and in Guam, and really giving other entities the opportunity to grow just like we do in what I call the first 48 states.
And so it's exciting to see those things grow through those jurisdictions and really see people making a difference in their communities because at the end of the day, we go to school, we work with, we go to church, we interact, we shop with the people in our community, and these are people in our community. And so it excites me that the more we learn about this particular issue, the greater the opportunities it will be for us to make a better change.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: How do treatment courts contribute to public safety?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: Well, the first statistic that I would like to share with you is, is that treatment courts have been researched and they are the number one researched criminal justice response. And here's what we know from a law enforcement perspective, and the reason I go back to that is not because I was a police officer for 22 years, but it's because of what the research says. And because of the fact that treatment courts are the first intersect point for someone coming into the criminal justice system. And what we know is, is if law enforcement is involved and has knowledge of a treatment court program and they're involved in that, that can be an—as much as an 88% reduction in recidivism in that jurisdiction. And there are no other programs that can say that.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right. What is one thing that you would like the public to know about treatment courts and/or substance use?
VANESSA MATTHEWS: I would like them to really understand that this is a public health issue. It is not something that someone chose to wake up one day and decide to do with their life, but things happened to them. And much like we have a knowledge of, if a person goes to prison, their whole family goes to prison. The same is true when we're talking about dealing with substance use disorder issues and mental health issues. If that person has those issues, whoever their support system is, is struggling and trying to figure that out. And so I would really like everyone to understand that when we take this approach in treatment courts, we're really looking at a holistic approach to healing a family. And that family being healed heals that community. And that just simply in and of itself enhances public safety.
Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.