Public Safety

$500,000 will aid special Iowa courts focused on issues like addiction, mental illness

New coordinator will lead effort to set uniform standards for problem-solving courts

The Iowa Judicial Branch recently received a three-year $500,000 federal grant to set up uniform standards for 19 adult problem-solving courts — which are focused on issues such as drugs, drunken driving, mental health, domestic violence and veterans — across the state. A court coordinator also was hired to lead the effort starting in January.

Todd Nuccio, state court administrator for the Iowa Judicial Branch, and Kathy Thompson, director of Iowa Children’s Justice, spoke with The Gazette earlier this month about the grant and why the standards are needed.

Q: Can you explain the grant and how the funding will benefit these courts?

A: Nuccio: The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded the grant to establish uniform standards and implement a long-term strategy to create a statewide system of support and accountability. Implementation of the strategy began with the recent hiring of a statewide problem-solving court coordinator.

The strategy also includes the development and implementation of standard data collection and performance measurement policies, and the formation of an Iowa problem-solving court professionals association that will provide training, create opportunities for collaboration, and assist in the implementation of best practices.

Iowa has eight types of problem-solving courts operating in 18 of Iowa’s 99 counties. The 12 family treatment courts were established under the guidance of federal grant agencies and have adopted state standards governing their policy, procedures and practices. The remaining 26 problem-solving courts, developed primarily as the result of grassroots efforts to address problems in local communities, have had limited guidance, training, data collection or the resources needed to ensure adherence to evidence-based practices and best practice standards. Even though the grant is for the 19 adult courts, the participants served in all 38 of Iowa’s problem-solving courts will benefit.

Q: How was the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit that provides leadership and service to state courts, involved in this process?

A: Nuccio: Iowa state court administration made a request to the center to complete two separate studies of the problem-solving courts. The first study was a review of data standards and performance measures and the second was a needs assessment for Iowa’s problem-solving courts. The National Center for State Courts had several findings and recommendations. The grant was needed to assist in implementing the recommendations.

Q: What are the different types of problem-solving courts — adult and juvenile — across Iowa?

A: Thompson: Iowa has 38 problem-solving courts — 12 family treatment courts, 10 adult drug courts, seven juvenile drug courts, four mental health/co-occurring disorders courts, two adult hybrid OWI/drug courts, one OWI court, one domestic violence court and one veterans treatment court.

There are 19 serving juveniles and 19 serving adults. Each judicial district has at least one problem-solving court.

Q: How do these courts operate and how do they help?

A: Thompson: Problem-solving courts work by utilizing a team of professionals led by a judge who provide oversight through a combination of accountability and treatment to support the participants in their programs. Judicial leadership has been identified as a key component by former participants to their success and completion of the program.

Additional members of the team interact more frequently with participants and are available to provide additional support and more resources than typically are available. The additional members may include substance abuse treatment providers, mental health providers, the Department of Human Services, and the legal community.

Q: Why are the uniform standards needed?

A: Thompson: Best practice standards are based on considerable research into key principles or components of successful programs. They provide guidance on who is best served in problem-solving courts, the role of the multidisciplinary team members, therapeutic responses to behavior and perhaps most of all, consistency among programs. For example, research has found that individuals who are addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol and are at a substantial risk for reoffending or failing to complete a less intensive program experience the most success in drug courts. These individuals are referred to as high-risk and high-need offenders and therefore have demonstrated to benefit the most from the intensity of the drug court model.

Q: Who is the new statewide coordinator for these courts and what will his job entail?

A: Nuccio: The coordinator is Dr. Eric Howard. He will provide support and technical assistance to the 26 local specialty courts. The director of Iowa Children’s Justice oversees the 12 family treatment courts. Howard has served in public systems for 18 years in mental health, specialty treatment courts and public education. He helped establish the first veterans treatment court in North Carolina and served as the coordinator from 2015 to 2017.

Howard is also an experienced trainer with criminal justice professionals, government agencies and public educators, specifically on issues related to equity, inclusion and implicit bias.

He received an associate degree in science from Georgia Military College in 1995, a bachelor’s degree in social work from Mars Hill College in 2004, his master’s degree in social work from the University of South Carolina in 2005 and a doctorate in education, leadership and policy analysis from East Tennessee State University in 2015.

Dr. Howard will work closely with problem-solving court staff and judges to ensure statewide projects meet the needs identified in specialty courts. The coordinator will provide staff assistance and support to committees and work groups involving specialty court-related issues. He will also oversee the compiling, analyzing and reporting of statistical data to evaluate the outcomes of the courts.

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