New Kind of Justice Encourages Offenders to Break Deadly Habits


Daily across America, captives in the war on drugs get hauled into court by the thousands: addicts and small-time dealers nabbed with chunks of crack cocaine, a marijuana butt, a wad of hot cash. Most get tossed behind bars or freed on probation. And at least half of them will commit another crime.

Nearly a decade ago, judges began rebelling against this recycling of drug offenders. The result today is a nationwide movement quietly dispensing a new kind of justice that aims not to punish, but to cure.

It's called drug court.

Circuit Judge John Parnham used to think he was doing the right thing by ordering drug treatment for the addicts he sentenced to probation. Still, many broke his rules and got packed off to jail. "I would say, 'I gave you every opportunity,' " Parnham said. In fact, "the opportunity I gave them was an opportunity to fail."

Six years ago, he started a drug court in his balmy Gulf Coast city of Pensacola.

Conceived in 1989 in Miami, where an early champion was then-chief prosecutor Janet Reno, the drug court idea has spread mainly by word of mouth. It got a boost in the last three years with $87 million in grants from U.S. Atty. Gen. Reno's Justice Department.

Today there are about 275 drug courts nationwide. With another 175 in the works, they'll soon be operating in 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico. There's also a federal drug court in Yosemite National Park.

In these courtrooms, there are no bad guys. Instead of shackles and shame, wrongdoers receive hours of personal and group counseling and encouraging words and attention from the judge.

In drug courts of the Pensacola-based 1st Judicial Circuit, judges greet defendants with "Glad to see you!" and "We're very proud of you" and "Anything you want to talk to me about?"

Judges may see these same offenders as often as once a week to keep tabs on their health, work and home life. The judges also bring together prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, probation and treatment agencies to help the addict recover. Instead of languishing in prison at taxpayer expense, defendants get help getting jobs and education.

Attendance at such programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is required. There are frequent urine tests. A slip may bring a weekend or two weeks in jail, or 16 hours of volunteer work, or an essay on the damage crack does. Those who make it are honored with a graduation ceremony. Those who fail end up behind bars.

Since opening the circuit's first drug court for adults five years ago, Parnham has enlisted three more judges to hold drug courts in the circuit so he could start spinoffs. Those deal with juvenile drug users, youngsters arrested for family violence and addict parents who lost their children over alleged abuse and neglect.

"We can't make them change," Parnham said. "But we can provide motivation that treatment never had before--and that the system never had before."

How well drug courts work, no one knows for sure. Only now are national evaluations underway. A General Accounting Office report last year drew no conclusions, saying drug courts were too new and diverse. But a rough gauge of success appears in preliminary results of a survey sponsored by the Justice Department to be released at a June 4-6 meeting in Washington of the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals.

The survey of 125 drug courts estimates 64,000 offenders are going through the process or have successfully completed it. Among those who finished the program, researchers found, the rearrest rate is less than 10%. Even among the 29% who fail to complete the program, recidivism appears to be far lower than for those who never entered drug court.

No studies compare this population with those who go through conventional courts. But about half of those convicted of drug felonies are arrested again within three years of returning to the community, federal figures show.

Costs are another unknown. Drug courts demand more time. Treatment is expensive and usually takes longer than the year allotted. But jail and prison cost even more. Multnomah County, Ore., for instance, found that every dollar spent on its drug court program saved $2.50.

The nascent drug court movement recognizes that inside most drug criminals is an addict and that, like cigarettes, illicit drugs can be hard to shake in just one try. So drug courts are willing to give defendants a second, third and fourth chance, with punishment as a last resort.

Even hard-liners seem to recognize this is not a case of coddling criminals, since drug courts have attracted no vocal criticism. Rhode Island is considering legislation to make it the 49th state with drug courts. Only New Hampshire rejected the idea--because it already has a remarkably similar system.

At the same time, drug court's advocates caution against premature enthusiasm.

"A certain idea has become very mass-produced," said Temple University's John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice who appraises drug courts. Many courts now sign up because they can get federal dollars, he said.

Drug courts take planning. Treatment doesn't suit everyone. Judges put in extra hours.

Others worry about trampling due process rights.

"It frightens me," said Christopher Warnock, a defense attorney. Warnock helped plan Washington, D.C.'s, drug court but worries about a "Big Mom" justice telling offenders, "We know what's good for you, and if you don't do it, we're going to kick your butt."

Jafari Williams doesn't mind. He tried the conventional system and found it wanting. In late April, he was making a routine appearance before Terry Terrell, a 1st Circuit drug court judge, for an update on his efforts to change.

"I've never had a counselor describe a person like this before," the judge told him.

"Says you're a role model for others," the judge continued reading. "You realize you have to get your own life in order."

The talk turned to work. Williams was missing sleep, holding down two jobs to support two children and a third on the way. Otherwise, he said, "Work's going good."

Outside court, the 20-year-old beamed, his mouth glittering with gold teeth, the jewelry of his outlaw past. He said the judge "makes it feel like he wants to see you. Most judges put you down. . . . This judge looks at what's inside of you."

Williams' life of crime led to his first arrest at age 13 for selling crack. He spent more than two years locked up on various offenses. After his latest charge for drug possession, he begged for drug court. The 11th-grade dropout wrote to the court explaining that his daily dive into marijuana and alcohol had "gotten me to rob, steal, lie, fight against my family and other citizens."

In March, Williams got his wish: a year of intense, intrusive drug court and house arrest instead of the haphazard fate of four years behind bars.

That meant he also signed on to start with four hours a day, four days a week at a drug treatment facility, plus random drug tests and AA, or any similar program.

He may fall a few times along the way. A bottle of beer, a smoke of crack, showing up late for treatment, lying, can be punished with time in jail. He may be subjected to stepped-up urine tests. The judge could order one on the spot.

But he will be forgiven for failing to show up once or twice, or getting arrested for domestic violence or drug possession--provided those treating him agree.

The alternative is prison.

Two months into drug court, Williams added to his first bank account and was planning for college. Counseling was teaching him he could cope without drugs or lashing out violently. He was taking parenting classes.

"Keep up the good work," Terrell said, "and we'll see you back next week."

A dozen more defendants waited their turn in Terrell's courtroom. Attorneys were few, but two probation officers were seated up front with a box of urinalysis kits, in case the judge ordered a test.

"It's doing social work from the bench," Terrell, a former public defender, said later. "It's rare in judging that you get a life-enhancing experience."

One enhanced graduate is Ron Baldwin.

"Drug court gave me my respect and dignity back," said Baldwin, 38, a sales manager at a car dealership. A member of a prominent Pensacola family, he's known for his car ads on radio and TV. Baldwin once sold crack to support a $1,000-a-week habit. He tried private drug treatment. Drug court proved to be the answer. It "gave me my dreams back and made me look at myself," he said. "How many times is a drug addict patted on the back by the community and by a judge?"

Drug court isn't easy.

In rural Crestview, 50 miles east of Pensacola, 19-year-old Brandy Jones was sobbing because Circuit Judge Keith Brace had just ordered her to spend four days in jail and write about the effects of crack cocaine on fetuses.

Arrested for buying $40 worth of crack, Jones opted for drug court. The first-time-pregnant bookkeeper used drugs after entering the program, so Brace made her spend eight hours raking and bagging leaves at a day care center.

Tears streamed from her blue eyes. "They say they care. I don't believe that they do!" she wailed.

Brace opened his session that afternoon with a stern lecture to about 20 defendants on his drug court roster. He had learned before court at his meeting with the prosecutor, treatment providers and public defenders that some defendants were skipping their 12-step meetings. Also troubling were some faked urine tests.

"What you do with this program is up to you," the white-haired Brace warned, his voice ringing with dismay and annoyance. "Honesty," he reminded them, was a foundation of the program.

"Now, there are good number of you here who are not honest and playing around with the UA's," he thundered. "But who the hell do you think you're fooling? Who's suffering because you're not going to your meeting? Who's suffering?

"You know the answer." The audience took a collective breath. "It's you."

To date, about 100,000 people have entered drug courts nationwide--a fraction of the more than 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations in 1996 alone, according to the latest tally by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Getting to a drug court depends on whether one exists in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred. They remain few, varying by style and policy. To qualify for federal funds, some only accept offenders with no violence in their records. Most take only adults.

Kalamazoo County, Mich., offers a women-only court where defendants can feel more comfortable expressing themselves, according to Circuit Judge William Schma. "It's like a pajama party, everybody's sobbing and crying," he said.

The drug court in Portland, Ore., accepts any offender, even murderers. "If drugs are the problem, we should help them," said Circuit Judge Harl Haas, a former prosecutor.

In central California's Tulare County, Judge Glade Roper once thought drug court was a stupid idea. But so was sending addicts to jail over and over, some to waste away and die. His court refuses public funding, and his defendants pay $50 a week for drug counseling. He cares little for statistics. "If I have 300 people in the drug court being tested every week, those are 300 people who are not stealing or being prostitutes."

Caroline Cooper, a research professor at American University, runs the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project for the Justice Department and produced its forthcoming survey.

"I've been working in the justice field for well over 20 years, and I have never seen so many judges get involved," Cooper said. "People get just so fed up. It's shown the community that the justice system is responsive."

The rampage of crack in the 1980s and its bloody underground market gave rise to stiffer penalties for drug crime, and to a prison construction boom unable to meet demand.

"There was basically very little treatment and, mainly, take names and kick rear ends and put 'em in jail," said Herbert Klein, then associate chief judge of Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit.

So, in 1988, judges and community leaders in Miami resolved to find alternatives and assigned Klein to the task. The result was drug court.

The principle, said Klein, now in private practice, was, "We're not going to let you fail."

"For many of these people, it's the first time they've had anybody of any importance, like a judge, say, 'We care about you.' "

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