Starting this spring, Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development will be working with the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) and the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice & Research (CPHPR) to examine the impacts of drug courts in the New River Valley. Researchers will study four adult drug treatment courts in Floyd, Giles, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties, examining how these local drug courts operate differently and aiming to discover the effect on individual participants, drug court collaborative partners, and local governments and regional authorities.

The Office of Economic Development has researched opioid use in the past, but this will be the first time researching the issue in depth. “The past research OED conducted focused on the effects of opioid use disorder on the workforce; it is a huge challenge for companies in Southwest Virginia and elsewhere to find and keep employees when this crisis is so widespread. We’re fortunate to be working with two VT offices who have very knowledgeable staff on this subject,” said Sarah Lyon-Hill, Senior Economic Development Specialist and Principal Investigator of the project.

In Fall 2018, CPHPR and IPG collaborated on a Vibrant Virginia project titled “Building Healthy Families and Communities through Collaborative Strategies to Reduce Opioid Use Disorder.” This project assisted in the prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders, with the goal of connecting public health expertise and organizational assessment capabilities.

CPHPR and IPG are also involved in the following projects related to opioid research: CYFAR – Helping Youth PROSPER and Avoid Opioid Misuse in Virginia, Rural Opioids Technical Assistances through Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the Virginia Higher Education Opioid Consortium, a collaboration of five Virginia public universities (George Mason University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech). These five universities work together to support local Community Services Boards (CSBs) to prevent and treat substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder. “These projects offer the opportunity to support our communities with research and technical assistance to mitigate the impact of the addiction crisis from prevention, to treatment and recovery,” said Mary Beth Dunkenberger, Associate Director of IPG.

Drug courts are programs that provide an alternative to jail for non-violent offenders who are alcohol or drug dependent. National studies have included the Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation (MADCE), which concluded that adult drug courts produced an average return on investment of approximately $2 to $4 for every $1 invested. Drug courts can ensure people still stay employed and earn a paycheck, as opposed to incarceration where people will be unable to stay employed. “In Virginia while drug courts receive structural guidance and approval from the state supreme court, how they function and their level of impact is reliant on local stakeholders and resources. This research will help us decipher the key factors for individual and community level success,” said Dunkenberger.

This research will take a look at drug courts on a local level and work to determine best practices. Participants in the study will be asked questions regarding their experience with drug courts, drug court benefits, and whether they think changes should be made in the future.

“CPHPR is excited to partner with economic development and policy experts on campus to tackle this tough, multi-dimensional issue and to identify local best practices that may be replicated in other drug courts,” said Sophie Wenzel, Associate Director of CPHPR.

Participants in the study will include drug court participants themselves, New River Valley Community Services staff who oversee the drug court program in the New River Valley, drug court panel members, beneficiaries of drug courts, and members of probation and law enforcement. After the research has concluded, investigators will have answers to questions such as “Is incarceration more or less expensive than drug court costs?” and “What makes a drug court successful?”

Lyon-Hill said, “Substance use directly impacts communities and economic development on a daily basis. Rather than punishing and incarcerating individuals faced with these challenges, it is our duty to explore how alternative approaches like drug courts might better support these individuals in becoming self-sufficient and contributing members of our communities.”