A Place for Growth: Connecticut’s Federal Support Court Offers a New Path for People with Substance Use Issues

May 10, 2021 by Aburiyeba Amaso

by Owen R. Eagan

The federal Support Court program in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut is part of a wave of treatment-focused court programs throughout the country. The program brings together federal institutional actors under the authority of a federal judge to help defendants with substance use issues in various stages of their federal criminal cases. My own experience with the Support Court in Connecticut may be enlightening to others seeking to learn about the process of justice within treatment court programs and form a basis for expanding these programs to reach more people in need of them.


A goal to lead a healthier lifestyle, a plan to strengthen a close relationship, a perspective on redemption from an inspiring film, a business idea—these were just some of the high points in the Support Court group’s wide-ranging discussions.


After becoming familiar with the formal rhythm of federal detention hearings and sentencing proceedings, where, with people’s liberties on the line, the mood was always necessarily solemn and fraught with tension, stepping into a Support Court session was like entering another world. That contrast between the procedures of the traditional justice system and the programming within a problem-solving court made observing these sessions one of the most intriguing aspects of my internship in Hartford, Connecticut’s federal courthouse during the summer after my first year of law school.


On most days, a federal judge would appear alongside a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer, and a treatment provider to engage with program participants in the pretrial and post-conviction phases of their cases.[1] As I would learn, the participants came from a variety of backgrounds, but all shared a common struggle: a verified history of substance use issues.[2] Their common problem is what Support Court was meant to address.


U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill brought the program to the federal court in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2009 after learning about a similar initiative in Oregon.[3] Underhill, who was appointed to the bench in 1999, told National Public Radio that he founded the Support Court after many years on the bench because he “had become frustrated with the revolving door” of those with substance use issues continually appearing in court.[4]


The judge’s frustration was well founded: data suggest that door swings wide and sweeps in many federal drug offenders. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice study of approximately 43,000 federal offenders on supervised release found that more than a third were rearrested within three years of release, and that 43% were rearrested in five.[5] Moreover, Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics indicate that close to half of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses.[6]


With a mission of positively influencing the lives of participants by connecting them with treatment, employment, and educational resources as well as with pro-social community organizations, Support Court aims to break the cycle of rearrest and reincarceration.[7] By addressing some of the factors underlying substance use issues, the program attempts to guide participants to solve their drug problems and to lead healthy, fulfilling, law-abiding lives.[8]


Those factors are numerous, complex, and interrelated. Poverty, for instance, is a risk factor for developing substance use issues, which also makes addiction more difficult to overcome.[9] In addition to lacking funds for rehabilitation and addiction treatment, people experiencing poverty may also lack the support networks that help people to deal with their substance use issues.[10] Stress, including the stresses of living in a systemically under-resourced neighborhood or of financial uncertainty, can also drive people toward developing substance use issues.[11] Substance use issues and unemployment are also interrelated, with unemployed people tending to use drugs at higher rates than employed people and with people who misuse drugs also potentially losing their jobs as a result and starting on downward trajectories toward further instability.[12] Other risk factors abound.[13]


Support Court connects participants with tools and resources to fight back against these risk factors in a tailored, individualized approach built on a structure of incentives and accountability.[14] When participants are lacking internal coping resources, the Support Court treatment provider and other community treatment centers may suggest new strategies for them to use to navigate their sometimes stressful life situations.[15] The judge may order journal reflection assignments or self-improvement projects or present expert research and speakers that help the participants develop coping skills.[16] The program may also encourage participants to build strong support networks of loved ones and friends to help them stay on a productive path.[17] On the employment front, Support Court sessions may provide career training, including job interview tips and resume development.[18] Financial planning speakers may supplement the weekly meetings and the program may connect participants with job training or other opportunities within their communities.[19]


Participants qualify to graduate from the Support Court program after advancing through its four phases over the course of at least a year.[20] During that time, they adhere to such requirements as attending treatment appointments, submitting to random drug testing, and maintaining steady employment, community service or schooling.[21] Support Court participation can reduce the severity of sentences for those who misuse substances.[22] Specifically, the supervised release of Support Court graduates may be reduced by up to one year, and judges can take account of the program as the graduates’ cases proceed.[23]


Though beginning in a single courthouse at Connecticut’s district court in Bridgeport, the Support Court program has expanded to the state’s other federal judicial seats in New Haven and Hartford, serving up to 16 participants in one location at a given time.[24] Hundreds have now participated in the program, and various findings suggest it leads to positive outcomes.[25] Preliminary data suggest, for instance, that Support Court graduates’ rate of recidivism is lower than that of Connecticut state offenders.[26] Program participants also achieve, compared to their records before participation, statistically significant higher rates of having consistent addresses and are also employed at higher rates during their enrollment.[27] In addition, participants report that the program helps them develop greater respect for the law.[28]


Some have also related that their Support Court experiences have been nothing short of lifechanging.


“[It] [h]as allowed me to . . . regain custody of my daughters,” wrote one participant in response to a research survey.[29]


“If Support Court wasn’t in my life, I think I’d be homeless,” said another, speaking anonymously to a student researcher.[30]


During my internship, a Support Court graduate explained that the program allowed him to transition from a life of crime in the drug market to his current life of stable, legitimate employment.[31]


Further, Support Court staff find that their experience administering the program humanizes not only participants but also other defendants and helps them develop empathy.[32] A Support Court probation officer, for example, said his experience interacting with program participants allowed him to build better relationships with his other supervisees.[33] A Support Court prosecutor added that her experience there had caused her to pause to consider defendants’ personal situations to a greater degree before advocating to impose an extra year or two at sentencing.[34]


Participants in the Connecticut Support Court join the growing number of defendants diverted to treatment courts nationwide at the state and federal levels. Since 1989, when the first treatment court started in Miami, Florida, they have expanded to all 50 states, and experts estimate they served approximately 127,000 people in 2014.[35]


Studies have shown treatment court programs are effective. Two-year rearrest rates among participants tend to be 8% to 14% lower than those of non-participants with some studies showing much greater reductions in recidivism.[36] Finally, for every dollar spent on them, studies show they produce an average of approximately $2 to $4 in savings for the criminal justice system.[37]


But among this range of benefits and amidst these statistics, I find one result of the Support Court program and the treatment court movement especially encouraging. In a system that holds defendants accountable to the law by reducing them to some of their worst actions, these initiatives highlight their humanity.[38]


Of course, no solution to the reincarceration problem is perfect, and treatment courts, including Support Court, have their flaws, detractors, and areas for improvement.[39] In light of their manifold positive qualities, however, they represent a worthwhile trend in American criminal justice. They can be a valuable place for personal growth for their participants and deserve further attention and study as a place for system-wide growth moving forward.









[1] See U.S. Dist. Ct. for the Dist. of Conn., Support Court Policies and Procedures Manual 2, 4 (2016) [hereinafter Policies and Procedures].

[2] Id. at 6.

[3] Joseph Dule et al., An Evaluation of Federal Support Court in Connecticut at 3 (Jan. 29, 2019) (unpublished report, University of New Haven, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences) (on file with author); Anna Baron, “On the Same Side:” Exploring Procedural Justice Elements in New Haven’s Support Court at 33 (April 22, 2016) (unpublished undergraduate thesis, Yale University), https://politicalscience.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Baron_Anna.pdf; Lucy Nalpathanchil, Instead of Jail, Judges Take More Hands-on Role with Addicts in Connecticut, WNPR (Aug. 5, 2014), https://www.wnpr.org/post/instead-jail-judges-take-more-hands-role-addicts-connecticut.

[4] Nalpathanchil, supra note 3; Biography – District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, U.S. Dist. Ct. for the Dist. of Conn., http://www.ctd.uscourts.gov/biography-district-judge-stefan-r-underhill (last visited July 12, 2020).

[5] Joshua A. Markman et al., U.S. Dep’t of Just., Bureau of Just. Stat., Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 at 1 (2016),


[6] Offenses, Federal Bureau of Prisons, https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp (last visited January 3, 2021).

[7] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–4; Nalpathanchil, supra note 3.

[8] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–4.

[9] See Catherine Spooner & Kate Hetherington, Nat’l Drug and Alcohol Res. Ctr., U. of New South Wales, Social Determinants of Drug Use 19 (2004) (noting poverty as a risk factor for developing substance use issues); Keith Humphreys, Why the Wealthy Stopped Smoking, but the Poor Didn’t, Wash. Post (Jan. 14, 2015, 11:02 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/01/14/why-the-wealthy-stopped-smoking-but-the-poor-didnt/; Maia Szalavitz, Addictions Are Harder to Kick When You’re Poor. Here’s Why, The Guardian (June 1, 2016, 6:30 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/01/drug-addiction-income-inequality-impacts-recovery; see also Maia Szalavitz, Yes, Addiction Does Discriminate, The Fix (Nov. 1, 2011), https://www.thefix.com/content/economic-inequality-and-addiction8202. Before broadening the risk factor of poverty into a wider generalization, however, readers should note that research suggests Americans receiving welfare payments tend to use illicit drugs at about the same rate as Americans generally. Compare Harold A. Pollack et al., Substance Use among Welfare Recipients: Trends and Policy Responses, 76 Soc. Serv. Rev. 256, 256, 259 (2002) (noting that almost 20% of welfare recipients reported using an illicit drug in the past year in a survey) with Substance Abuse and Mental Health Servs. Admin., Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 12 (2019) (estimating based on survey data that 19.4% of the U.S. population aged 12 and older used an illicit drug in the past year). Further, under a definition of “very low-income” as making less than half the median income for a given area, a study of U.S. prisoner data combining state and federal prisoners shows that they tend to come from very low-income backgrounds. See Carmen DeNavas-Walt & Bernadette D. Proctor, U.S. Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014 at 5 (2015) (noting that the U.S. median household income for 2014 was $53,657); Bernadette Rabuy & Daniel Kopf, Prison Pol’y Initiative, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned (2015), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html; (showing that, analyzing state prisoner data, prisoners had a median income of $19,185 prior to incarceration in 2014 dollars); U.S. Dep’t of Housing and Urb. Dev., Transmittal of Fiscal Year (FY) 1998 Public Housing/Section 8 Income Limits (1998), https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/il/fmr98/sect8.html (last visited July 12, 2020) [hereinafter “HUD ‘Very Low-Income’ Guideline”] (defining “very low-income” as having 50% of family median income in a given area); Office of the Assistant Sec’y for Planning and Evaluation, 2014 Poverty Guidelines: 12/01/2014, https://aspe.hhs.gov/2014-poverty-guidelines (last visited July 12, 2020) (noting that the federal poverty guideline for 2014 was $11,670 for a single person). Additionally, a 2019 study of Support Court participants showed that they had a mean monthly income of $1,208.70 ($14,504.40 per year) at the end of the program. Dule et al., supra note 3, at 31. That income is above the 2019 federal single-adult poverty line of $12,490, but well below the “ALICE” guideline measuring how much income is necessary to meet the actual cost of living in Connecticut, which was $24,672 for a single adult in 2016. Conn. United Ways, ALICE: A Study of Financial Hardship in Connecticut 4 (2018); Dule et al., supra note 3, at 31; Office of the Assistant Sec’y for Planning and Evaluation, 2019 Poverty Guidelines, https://aspe.hhs.gov/2019-poverty-guidelines (last visited July 12, 2020). As Connecticut had a 2014-2018 median household income of $76,106 in 2018 dollars, that reported income of Support Court participants completing the program is also well within the “very low income” category explained above. Dule et al., supra note 3, at 31; HUD ‘Very Low-Income’ Guideline; U.S. Census Bureau, QuickFacts: Connecticut, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/CT,US/PST045219 (last visited July 12, 2020).

[10] See Spooner & Hetherington, supra note 9, at vii–x, 55–58, 61, 100–01 (synthesizing research and collecting sources about support networks influencing drug misuse); World Health Org., Neuroscience of Psychoactive Substance Use and Dependence 150–51 (2004), https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/en/Neuroscience.pdf (noting that the personal resources people draw upon to resist developing substance use issues can “include coping skills, self-efficacy, risk perception, optimism, health-related [behavior], ability to resist social pressure and general health [behavior]”); see also Humphreys, supra note 9.

[11] See María E. Dávalos et. al, Easing the Pain of an Economic Downturn: Macroeconomic Conditions and Excessive Alcohol Consumption, 21 Health Econ. 1318, 1333–34 (2012) (finding trends in “alcohol consumption, and particularly problematic drinking” tend to run higher during times of economic downturn); J. David Hawkins et al., Preventing Substance Abuse, 19 Crime & Just. 343, 392 (1995) (noting “family stress associated with poverty” can increase a person’s likelihood of developing substance misuse problems and collecting literature); Spooner & Hetherington, supra note 9, at ix–x (connecting stress stemming from physical environmental factors to risk factors for substance misuse); see also Baron, supra note 3, at 3 (quoting an anonymous Support Court participant as saying, “I self-medicated to kill the pain, which grew into a really bad habit,” following economic hardship and the death of a loved one).

[12] See Wilson M. Compton et al., Unemployment and Substance Outcomes in the United States 2002–2010, 142 Drug and Alcohol Dependence 350, 350–53 (2014) (finding that “[h]eavy alcohol use, illicit drug use, tobacco use, alcohol abuse or dependence, and illicit drug abuse or dependence were more prevalent among the unemployed” throughout the period of study); Michael T. French et al., The Morning After: Alcohol Misuse and Employment Problems, 43 Applied Econ. 2705, 2715 (2011) (finding that alcohol misuse has a positive, statistically significant relationship with the probability of employment problems); Michael T. French et al., Illicit Drug Use, Employment, and Labor Force Participation, 68 S. Econ. J. 349, 365–66 (2001) (finding that chronic drug use was significantly and negatively related to employment among both men and women).

[13] See generally Spooner & Hetherington, supra note 9.

[14] Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–4, 11–15.

[15] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–4; Nalpathanchil, supra note 3 (relating an example of one such thinking strategy in action).

[16] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 11–14; Baron, supra note 3, at 41–44, 54, 63–64 (describing journaling and other Support Court assignments, the benefits of journaling reported by Support Court participants, and various expert speakers who lectured to participants); Dule et al., supra note 3, at 20.

[17] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 3 (listing among the goals for participants “[c]ommunity support” and “[i]mproved family relationships”); Baron, supra note 3, at 42. This was also the focus of a number of discussions that I observed at Support Court sessions.

[18] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–3, 11–13; Dule et al., supra note 3, at 21.

[19] See Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 2–3, 11–13; Baron, supra note 3, at 43 (noting a financial planning speaker who lectured to Support Court participants).

[20] Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 11–13.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 14.

[23] Id.; U.S. Dist. Ct. for the Dist. of Conn, Support Court Participant Orientation Packet 2 (2016).

[24] Policies and Procedures, supra note 1, at 10 (noting each divisional Support Court’s cap of 16 participants); Baron, supra note 3, at 33 (describing the growth of the Support Court program from one to three locations).

[25] Dule et al., supra note 3, at 23 (noting that the report drew its findings from studying 209 Support Court participants).

[26] Dule et al., supra note 3, at 34, 59–60 (comparing Support Court participant recidivism rates to those of Connecticut state offenders and finding them to be lower).

[27] Dule et al., supra note 3, at 31, 58.

[28] See Baron, supra note 3, at 50–52.

[29] Dule et al., supra note 3, at 47.

[30] Baron, supra note 3, at 54.

[31] I have anonymized this Support Court graduate for his privacy and safety.

[32] Baron, supra note 3, at 60–61.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Douglas B. Marlowe et al., Nat’l Drug Ct. Inst., Painting the Current Picture: A National Report on Drug Courts and Other Problem-Solving Courts in the United States 7 (2016) (estimating the number of people whom drug courts served in 2014); John S. Goldkamp at al., Do Drug Courts Work? Getting inside the Drug Court Black Box, 31 J. of Drug Issues 27, 27–28 (2001) (noting the founding of the first U.S. drug courts in Miami during the summer of 1989 and the subsequent expansion); Ryan S. King & Jill Pasquarella, The Sent’g Project, Drug Courts: A Review of the Evidence 1 (2009) (describing the expansion of drug court programs to all 50 states).

[36] See Dule et al., supra note 3, at 5 (collecting literature).

[37] Marlowe et al., supra note 35, at 15 (collecting literature).

[38]See Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption 17–18 (2014).

[39] Baron, supra note 3, at 21–25, 64–70 (collecting literature regarding the criticism of treatment courts generally and noting drawbacks and areas of improvement for the New Haven Support Court program); Dule et al., supra note 3, at 56–62 (assessing Support Court’s achievement of its goals and offering recommendations for program improvement); Marlowe et al., supra note 35, at 46–47 (noting potential disproportionate admittance of Caucasian participants to drug courts nationwide compared to participants of other races).