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Recovery Courts in Tennessee Leading to Lifetime Transformations

Monday, November 30, 2015 | 09:16am

NASHVILLE – Recovery Courts in Tennessee have been putting people who struggle with mental health and substance use issues on the path to a more successful and rewarding future since 2003.

Recovery Courts are special courts handling cases involving substance-abusing offenders. Many of them also serve veterans and people with mental health issues. The program, sometimes referred to as Drug Courts, offers individuals treatment services which includes: counseling, supervision, drug testing, and incentives for meeting recovery goals.

“These courts give people a second chance to be productive citizens,” said E. Douglas Varney, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “Those who choose this path are motivated to change their behavior and we’re seeing good results.”

The Recovery Court concept, made possible through funding and support from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, is showing an impressive trend of positive outcomes.

In an evaluation of participants in a Tennessee Recovery Court from 2013 to 2015:

  • 81% became employed or saw improvement in their job status
  • Only 3.5% had an employment status that remained unchanged
  • 28% who were homeless or living in a group home secured their own place
  • 63% maintained an independent living situation upon completing the program
  • 7% had a living situation that didn’t change from admission to discharge

While the majority of those participating in a Tennessee Recovery Court came into the program with a high school diploma or GED, 14% improved their education status by either obtaining their GED or securing an advanced degree.

“These outcomes speak to the powerful impact Recovery Courts are having on our families, friends, and neighbors in Tennessee,” said Commissioner Varney. “It’s effective for those who agree to participate and for Tennessee it’s a low-cost, high-impact approach that’s giving people their lives back, allowing them to be productive citizens again, and it’s more cost effective than incarceration.  This represents an alternative that’s working.”

Among Tennessee’s larger metropolitan cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, judges have separate specialty courts for mental health, alcohol and drug, and veteran issues.  The primary goal for each person is to help them maintain or improve their employment status, living arrangement, education, and all must remain drug-free.

In less urban areas across the state, judges have incorporated special dockets for people participating in Recovery Court into their standard court dockets. Individuals also benefit from a support system to ensure they continue treatment for their substance use or mental health issues, maintain a safe and secure place to live, remain employed or continue to seek employment opportunities, and work to advance their level of education. These smaller courts also devote a court docket entirely to veterans, in which veteran services representatives are available to work with judges and court attorneys on an individualized plan of action for each service member.

“Individuals with the combination of a substance abuse addiction and criminal behavior are at a greater risk of being jailed or imprisoned for much of their adult life,” said Commissioner Varney.  “Recovery Court can help those who are non-violent to invest themselves, beat their addictions, live independently, and achieve a more productive and rewarding life.

“Over just a two-year time frame, Recovery Courts in Tennessee have shown us how an alternative to the traditional court, sentencing, and incarceration can transform the life of a person who has struggled with an addiction,” said Commissioner Varney. “Seeing these individuals realize their full potential is powerful. We all benefit from the recovery court system.”

Research continues to show that Recovery Courts in Tennessee work better than jail or prison, better than probation, and better than treatment alone.

“It is not easy for people to turn their lives around,” said Commissioner Varney. “We expect each participant to be held accountable and remain motivated to change their life.”