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Practice Areas & Settings

International Cooperation and Technical Assistance for Therapeutic Justice Programs

Jeffrey Eric Zinsmeister

International Cooperation and Technical Assistance for Therapeutic Justice Programs
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via iStock

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As part of its institutional strengthening programming, the Organization of American States (OAS) provides important technical assistance for specialized alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses across the Americas. In some nations, therapeutic justice programs include treatment courts, drug treatment courts, problem-solving courts, addiction treatment courts, among others, in part to acknowledge that they address cases related to alcohol and other legal drugs as well.

The OAS is the world’s oldest regional organization, dating back to 1889. It brings together all 35 independent states of the Americas and constitutes the region’s main political, juridical, and social governmental forum.

Requests for Assistance

In the mid-2000s, OAS member states began to request technical assistance for treatment courts via the Executive Secretariat of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (more commonly known as CICAD, using its Spanish-language acronym). These requests stemmed from the success of treatment courts in the United States (which date back to 1989), Canada (since 1998), and Chile (since 2004). Indeed, treatment courts represent one of the most studied criminal justice programs. When good practices are followed, they have been proven to effectively reduce recidivism, provide effective rehabilitation, and promote the use of alternatives to incarceration writ large. The evidence for these effects is so strong that a 2010 US meta-analysis states, “[I]t is virtually certain that the average drug court effect is a reduction in recidivism.”

Given CICAD’s role as an international forum in this area, and its ability to link nations interested in technical assistance with donor countries, it was able to respond to these requests. In 2008, CICAD first began providing informal assistance to Mexico with respect to the creation of its first pilot program. The scope and formality of that assistance grew significantly in the 2010s. In 2010, CICAD worked with just four member states: Canada, Chile, Mexico, and the United States. As of now, it is collaborating with 17 member states that are either implementing or exploring a treatment court model: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.

Although treatment courts originated in North America, CICAD does not promote any particular jurisdiction’s model. On the contrary, it assists interested member states in adapting existing evidence-based best practices to their own social, political, and cultural realities and needs.

In more practical terms, CICAD helps:

  • forge collaborative relationships between relevant authorities (e.g., criminal justice, public health, and social integration sectors).
  • train program staff on good practices.
  • inform elected and appointed officials about treatment courts.
  • collaborate in planning, implementing, and expanding treatment court programs.
  • provide advice on program sustainability.
  • assist with monitoring and evaluation.
  • promote cooperation between OAS member states.

Though the member states bear the operational costs of the programs themselves, CICAD resources and expertise serve as leverage to increase those resources’ effectiveness and encourage programs to follow evidence-based best practices. Key to these efforts is monitoring and evaluation, which CICAD facilitates through expert, independent partners such as the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). (NB: CICAD itself does not evaluate the programs of member states.) It has also collaborated with the ABA on alternatives to incarceration more generally in past years.

Treatment for Treatment’s Sake

CICAD’s work has also highlighted that treatment court programs are independent of the drug legalization or decriminalization debate. Many treatment courts handle cases where individuals suffering from a substance use disorder are accused of a crime, regardless of the legal status of the substance in question. Treatment court cases can be related to alcohol abuse, such as driving under the influence—or offenses driven by the need to acquire money to support substance use (e.g., theft) rather than possession/use offenses.

Additionally, as OAS member states’ interests expand beyond treatment courts to other alternatives to incarceration, such as primary diversion programs, CICAD has broadened its efforts to meet those needs, grounded in evidence-based practices. CICAD is also committed to providing low-cost/free training resources for treatment court operators, particularly in official OAS languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish) other than English, in which many resources already exist. This helps ensure that OAS member states have accessible options to train new operators and provide continuing education to existing staff.

Finally, CICAD is dedicated to remaining at the forefront of hemispheric policy on treatment courts and on alternatives to incarceration generally, consistent with the OAS’s 2020 Hemispheric Drug Strategy.