July 27, 2022
Like most court proceedings, treatment courts took an alternative approach to court attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was in this season of virtual court attendance that the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), Rulo Strategies, and Wayne State University sought to explore participant barriers when transitioning to a virtual court (and treatment) experience, and how this transition impacted perceptions of the court experience. This study measures attitudes about the treatment court process, interactions with treatment court staff, as well as barriers to virtual and in-person court sessions. To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine court clients' perceptions of virtual versus in-person court services and treatment services. Results of this study found minimal barriers for accessing court and treatment sessions; however, there were mixed attitudes for benefits of in person versus virtual sessions. Although the study suggests positive perceptions of virtual services, the digital divide is significant and requires additional exploration of access to resources and information.
In 2021, over 1,300 responses from treatment court participants were gathered representing 121 courts in 27 states. We examined potential barriers clients faced transitioning to virtual treatment court environments, and how this impacted their perceptions and attitudes of the virtual treatment court experience. The survey separated court and treatment experiences as well as clients who transitioned to virtual in comparison to those that started during the pandemic and only experienced virtual court and services. Clients who experienced virtual only had a more positive attitude toward virtual court and services. Procedural justice remained a key element to the treatment court process and includes clients feeling they are treated with respect and given a voice. However, COVID-19 forced the courts to adapt how staff and clients interact, and in this instance, with little to no preparation or guidance to a virtual environment.
In summary, most respondents reported few technology barriers and had the necessary equipment and access to participate in virtual services. Other findings include clients felt more comfortable participating in virtual court sessions than in-person sessions. From the treatment perspective, clients felt more connected with other group members and staff in-person but felt less anxious when groups were virtual. These mixed results for virtual experiences reflect the difficultly of creating human connections using remote technologies, even though virtual experiences may feel more comfortable than in-person experiences. Although more research is needed, the results suggest a potential technological trade-off between increased comfort in attending services and the ability to form connections with staff and group members. Results also suggest strong support for continued use of virtual services.