Drug courts and other specialty courts (mental health, veterans, etc) are effective. Here is but one example of an actual message received from a former participant in the 33rd Judicial District Court’s Drug Court program which I created in 2005:
Hi judge jones!! Remember me I was in your drug court? Well partially…lol…just thought you might like an update on me…I’m way better!! Still an addict…always will be…but I have been clean for 18 months now…had a slip or two…I moved to XXXXX…very happily married ..love my life now…I have finally accepted and forgiven my past…my mistakes have made me who I have become…thank you for your help, guidance, and o …thanks for incarcerating me!! No really!!! I wouldn’t have come this far without the horrid safpf experience. Best wishes to you!! And thanx again…I will always remember the impact you made in my life
This is from a person who was very seriously addicted. She received a couple of progressive sanctions — a day in jail, several days in jail, then some more days — until it became apparent that only intensive inpatient treatment would help her. She did it the hard way, but was ultimately successful in Drug Court.
The “safpf” mentioned is the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility which is the best drug treatment money the State has ever spent. Unfortunately, the Legislature has cut down the funding so that it is only six months long versus the nine months before, but it still requires three months in a half-way house to facilitate reintegration into the community.
In the seven years 2005-2012 that I oversaw the Drug Court program, we ran many hundreds of people through it. Not dealers, but addicted people whom we assessed and believed had a chance to achieve sobriety. In that time we graduated well over half of the participants and of the graduates, very few committed any criminal offense thereafter. Reduced recidivism is an immediate societal benefit.
is it being “soft” to give addicted defendants a chance at rehabilitation? No, and here is why: when I took their plea, and again when they were introduced into the Drug Court formally, they were told this —
This is a pass/fail course. You will either graduate from here clean and sober and with your life back, or you will go to prison. We will give you the best platform we can upon which you can get clean, but it’s up to you and it’s hard work. This is the hardest probation you will ever do. But it’s worth the effort. You get your life back or you go to prison.
Drug Court probation is anything but soft and unlike many offenses, drug offenders can’t be susceptible to rehabilitation. Is it the goal of the criminal justice system to lock people up or, in the right cases, to make productive citizens out of them?
What makes it a “Drug Court” and why does it work?
The “Drug” part is easy: the participants are all drug or alcohol addicts. The “Court” part is what is special and makes it Drug Court. It is the continued direct involvement of the Court — the Judge himself — that makes it effective. The defendant has a probation officer who supervises only these offenders and the requirements are stiffer than with ordinary probation. Then there are significant therapeutic components to it.
But it’s the court part that makes it work. Many drug courts meet weekly and that is ideal. Ours met twice monthly. It’s Court. They appear in the courtroom and are held accountable not simply BY the Judge, but TO the Judge directly. It’s one thing to know that continued drug use or other criminal activity may eventually get you in front of the Judge. But it is an entirely different thing to know that it will happen within no more than two weeks and that there are swift consequences.
When a participant violates a condition of his probation, whether drug use or otherwise, there is a sanction. Another violation produces and increased sanction. Eventually, the sanction may have to be SAFPF or even revocation of their probation and off to prison.
The Judge makes the difference in the equation.
Why not just ship them straight off to prison to dry out? First, it’s neither “right” nor “just” to simply toss everyone in prison. If that’s all there is to it then we don’t need judges, but just clerical staff to process papers. Justice is not meted out with a cookie cutter. It is meted out one case at a time using intelligent judicial discretion to make the best use of limited resources to achieve the best possible outcome for both society and the individual offender. Drug Court does that efficiently. Drug Courts are also consistent with the current Legislative philosophy in Texas toward Community Supervision and Community Corrections instead of prison.
For drug offenders that philosophy is especially true, but it applies to all notions of criminal justice. There are some definitions1 of “justice” that I think apply particularly well to the notion of meting out justice, one case at a time:
- the quality or fact of being just
- (from philosophy and ethics) the principle of fairness that like cases should be treated alike
- the principle that punishment should be proportionate to the offence
Drug Court accomplishes those things. Many offenders found their way back as a productive member of society, working, supporting families, doing good things. Some failed and went to prison. Those typically came out hard and embittered, unemployable and still addicted with a whole new set of friends: all true criminals.
I will leave you with one more story — a success of unimaginable proportions. I will call her “Susie” but that is not her real name.
Susie was one of the first entrants to Drug Court. The recommendation of Probation was that she go to SAFPF but she thought she did not need to go, that she could get clean without it. I asked her “why do you think you don’t need SAFPF?” “Judge, I’ve been clean for eight days now” was her reply. This person’s history, which I already knew, was one of long-time and serious use of drugs.
Kicking and screaming (at least in her mind) Susie went off to SAFPF. Then the first report came back and she was doing quite well there. And another, and she was making great progress. From SAFPF she went to a half-way house and eventually showed up in Drug Court, in front of me.
Susie gave a brief account of her nine months away, and felt she could stay clean now. I asked her about how long she had done drugs (she was about 42 at this time). “I’m not sure, judge, but I think I was about 15. I can’t remember for sure.” Age 15? That’s 27 years of drug use. “What was your main drug of choice” I asked. “Judge, you can’t name a drug that I haven’t tried and I’ve done most of them heavily,” Susie replied. When I asked Susie if she remembered resisting SAFPF because she had been clean a whole eight days, she could recall nothing of that.
She graduated the 33rd Judicial District Drug Court sometime in 2006. She regained her health, her family, and employment. She has re-established relationships with all of her family including grandchildren. She continued to be a mentor to many women in our Drug Court program and a NA2 sponsor for many. She occasionally speaks in public about her journey from the dark abyss into the light. I know for a fact that she is clean today.
Drug Court works. It saves lives, reshapes lives, and is good for society. That’s why I was so glad that my successor, The Hon. J. Allan Garrett agreed to continue the Drug Court Program. It works.