Motivational Interviewing Training for Accountability Court Teams: A Case Study from Troup Co. DUI/Drug Court

By Scott Smith, M.A., LAPC, Troup Co. DUI/Drug Court Coordinator

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a “collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change” (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). Although psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick designed MI as an intervention for problem drinkers, MI has since been identified as an evidence-based practice “now being applied widely and with positive results in corrections, particularly in probation and parole” (National Institute of Corrections, 2007).  As opposed to a specific counseling technique or set of techniques, MI is more of an “interpersonal style” or a “way of being” with people; therefore, the spirit of MI is paramount to successful implementation. The spirit of MI has four main components: partnership, acceptance, compassion, and evocation. It is this spirit that allows “motivation to change [to be] elicited from the client, and not imposed from without” (Miller & Rollnick, 1995).

In March 2015, the Troup County DUI/Drug Court team participated in a two-day MI training facilitated by Melanie Iarussi, Ph.D., a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. An evaluation of audio recorded during status hearings showed that Judge Jeannette L. Little, who presides over Troup County DUI/Drug Court, increased utilization of MI core skills after the training. Furthermore, the average status hearing time increased from 1:43 pre-training to 3:08 post-training. (See Table 1 below.)


According to the National Drug Court Institute, one of the “top ten practices for reducing recidivism in drug courts” is for the judge to spend at least three minutes, on average, with each participant during hearings: “Drug Courts where the judge spent an average of three minutes or greater per participant during court hearings had 153% greater reductions in recidivism compared with programs where the judge spent less time” (Carey, Mackin & Finigan, 2012). MI training may effectively reduce recidivism by teaching judges how to expand change-focused conversations with participants.

MI training for accountability court teams may also improve program outcomes by enhancing participants’ perceptions of positive judicial demeanor. In a multi-site adult drug court evaluation, Rossman et al. (2011) found the following:

The primary mechanism by which drug courts reduce substance use and crime is through the judge. Drug court offenders believe that their judge treated them more fairly than the comparison group, including demonstrating greater respect and interest in them as individuals and greater opportunities to express their own voice during the proceedings. Furthermore, when offenders have more positive attitudes toward the judge, they have better outcomes. This was true across all offender subgroups when examining demographics, drug use history, criminality, and mental health. A separate analysis drawing upon the results of structured courtroom observations found, similarly, that drug courts whose judge was rated by members of the research team as exhibiting a more positive judicial demeanor (e.g., respectful, fair, attentive, enthusiastic, consistent/predictable, caring, and knowledgeable) produced better outcomes than other drug courts. Both analyses reaffirmed the central role of the judge.

Given the central role of the judge, MI training for accountability court judges may have a significant impact on program outcomes. In Motivational Interviewing for Judicial Officers, Judge Roxanne Bailin (2006) explains how judges can use MI to encourage change:

Judges should avoid blaming, shaming, discounting, arguing with, confronting, labeling, and belittling defendants. Judges should ask open-ended questions, affirm the defendants’ conduct and views whenever appropriate, reflect back the defendants’ comments, and summarize . . . In summary, our focus should be on eliciting verbalizations of change from the clients. If the judge stays focused on attempting to get the client to vocalize the desire, ability, need, or reason for change, he or she has moved the client toward actually changing.

Best Practices for North Carolina Drug Treatment Courts (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, 2010) recommends that all drug court judges receive MI training as a best practice:

At each session, the [drug court] judge should use motivational interviewing techniques to elicit feedback from the participant on his/her successes and struggles during the past two weeks. The relationship that develops between the judge and the participant in the courtroom is an essential element of changing the participant’s behavior . . . [Drug court] judges should all be trained in motivational interviewing.

Similarly, the Guide for Drug Court Judges on Drug Court Treatment Services from the Bureau of Justice Assistance advises: “All members of the drug court team, including treatment staff, the drug court judge, community supervision officers, and case managers should be trained in motivational interventions” (Kushner, Peters & Cooper, 2014).

When all members of an accountability court team are trained in MI, then they have a common framework for encouraging positive change. For example, Troup County DUI/Drug Court team members now devote a few minutes of each staff meeting to discuss and develop a specific MI-consistent, open-ended question that can be posed by the judge during the subsequent hearing. Examples of open-ended questions posed in court include:

  • How has not drinking or using drugs improved your life?
  • Tell me about the moment when you decided you wanted to change your life.
  • What are the top qualities you appreciate in people?
  • Tell me about something you’ve learned in your self-help meetings.

“These questions give us a focal point and help me to encourage reticent participants to talk more,” said Troup County DUI/Drug Court Judge Jeannette Little, who recommends MI training for accountability court teams.

“The open-ended questions put the clients at ease in court,” added Renee Gillett, LAPC, Lead Counselor for Troup County DUI/Drug Court. “When clients come to court, there’s often a barrier between them and the judge. The MI approach takes down that barrier and allows the clients to build a relationship with the judge and to see that the court is there to help them and not just punish them.”


Bailin, R. (2006). "Motivational Interviewing for Judicial Officers." National Center for State Courts. Retrieved from

Carey, S.M., Mackin, J.R., & Finigan, M.W. (2012). "What works? The ten key components of drug court: Research-based best practices." Drug Court Review, 8(1): 29. National Drug Court Institute. Retrieved from

Iarussi, M.M. (2015, March). "Motivational Interviewing Workshop." Troup County DUI/Drug Court training conducted in LaGrange, GA.

Kushner, J.N., Peters, R.H., & Cooper, C.S. (2014). "A technical assistance guide from drug court judges on drug court treatment services." Bureau of Justice Assistance Drug Court Technical Assistance Project. American University. Retrieved from

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). "What is motivational Interviewing?" Retrieved from

National Institute of Corrections. (2007). A guide for probation and parole: Motivating offenders to change.  Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. NIC Accession Number 022253. Retrieved from

North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. (2010). "Best Practices for North Carolina Drug Treatment Courts." Retrieved from

Rollnick S., & Miller, W.R. (1995).  What is motivational interviewing?  Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23, 325-334. Retrieved from

Rossman, S.B., Roman, J.K., Zweig, J.M., Rempel, M., & Lindquist, C.H. (2011). "The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation: Executive Summary." Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. Retrieved from

University of Wales College of Medicine. (2002). "Behavior Change Counseling Index (BECCI) - Criminal Justice Version." Retrieved from

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