The New Generation of Drug Court: The Case for a Bilingual Spanish Session

Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 By Melissa A. Juárez, Esq.
Section Review: Criminal Justice

Massachusetts has 26 adult drug courts, three juvenile drug courts and one family drug court. Four of the adult drug courts are located in cities that have the highest population of Latino immigrants: Lawrence, Chelsea, Springfield and Lynn. For many of the Latino immigrants in these communities, English is a second, or perhaps a third or fourth language. Practitioners who work in these four district courts know that many of the Latino immigrants who participate in the drug court session know little to no English. This means that the Latino drug court participant may be the only one in the courtroom who is not able to communicate in English without the assistance of an interpreter, even though he or she lives in a community that is largely Spanish-speaking.

There may be a way to better serve this population: establish a bilingual Spanish drug court session. In a recent research paper, “Quiero Hablar Con Usted en Español, Juez: The Importance of Spanish at a Mostly Majority Hispanic Drug Court,” Criminal Justice Policy Review, Vol. 27(2), pp. 164-181 (2016), professors Kelly Frailing, Ph.D., and Diana Carreon, M.S., of Texas A&M University, found that, in a largely Latino community, Latino drug court participants perceived the ability to communicate with the judge in Spanish as important to their success in drug court. This was true even of those participants who had some fluency in English as well as Spanish. Their findings suggest that the language abilities of the judge, and perhaps the rest of the drug court team, may be an important piece to consider as we look for new ways to develop specialty courts in the commonwealth.

These findings mirror other research that found having direct communication with a drug court judge is crucial to a participant’s success. The research of Professors Frailing and Carreon complements these earlier findings and, notably, adds an important new ethnic and linguistic dimension to the research. The Massachusetts trial court already appears to recognize that a judge’s direct interaction with drug court participants is an important part of the process. The 2015 Massachusetts adult drug court handbook lists “judicial praise” as a proven incentive to be utilized in drug court when a drug court participant demonstrates progress in the program. 

Admittedly, the idea to establish a bilingual drug court session is a novel one, but it may prove to be quite timely and worthy of debate. A 2016 MassINC study conducted by Benjamin Forman, Jonathan Jones and Abigail Hiller, “Mounting an Evidence-Based Criminal Justice Response to Substance Abuse and Drug Offending in Massachusetts,” found that African Americans and Hispanics represent less than 20 percent of the Massachusetts population, but comprise 27 percent of all residents convicted for drug possession. Additionally, there is a body of research, most notably a 2001 study by Michael Rempel, Ph.D., and Christine D. DeStefano, Ph.D., that found that being Latino correlates with unsuccessful completion of drug court. And, recent findings by the Massachusetts trial court indicate that few minorities were enrolled in drug court in 2015.

The trial court, under a collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Research Center, established the Massachusetts Center for Excellence for Specialty Courts in 2014 to evaluate why there is a disproportionate representation of non-white drug court participants, such as Latinos and other minority groups, in our drug court sessions. The center’s executive director, Ira K. Packer, Ph.D., has speculated that one of the reasons there is disproportionate representation is that minority groups are less trusting of the criminal justice system. Yet, if the ability to communicate with a drug court judge in Spanish prompts Latinos to more fully invest in and trust the process, then perhaps establishing a bilingual drug court session will incentivize a greater number of Latinos to participate in drug court.

Of course, there are logistical considerations that would have to be vetted before a bilingual drug court is established. Where would the bilingual session be located? Does the chosen district court have a drug court team that is bilingual? Would district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges and probation officers be willing to participate? Why focus on Latinos as opposed to other English-limited groups in establishing a bilingual session? Is there adequate funding to support such a session? 

Some of these concerns would be addressed by implementing a pilot program for a bilingual Spanish drug court session. This would accomplish three important goals. First, a pilot program would give the trial court a way to quantify the effectiveness of a bilingual drug court session for the participants. Second, a pilot program would test the logistics and reveal deficiencies before any decisions are made regarding whether a Spanish bilingual drug court session would be permanently staffed. Lastly, if the findings pertaining to the Spanish pilot program are promising in terms of reducing recidivism, the trial court would be in a better position to decide whether there are other English-limited groups that would benefit from such a session.

Not everyone is a candidate for drug court. Most drug court participants go through an exhaustive screening process to be admitted to a program. Drug court candidates are often misdemeanor probationers who have been found guilty or had their cases continued without a finding after admitting to sufficient facts and then placed on supervised probation. Steering misdemeanor probationers to drug courts has proven to save taxpayers money and enhance public safety by lowering the recidivism rate. For instance, according to the trial court, nationwide, for every $1 invested in drug court, taxpayers save $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone. And, nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. With these statistics in mind, why wouldn’t we want to expand the reach and effectiveness of drug courts here in the commonwealth?

There may be individuals who do not believe in making this accommodation to those who do not know English. Certainly, there is no question that English is the de facto language of the United States and of court proceedings. But, in practice, we do accommodate non-English speakers already by providing interpreters. This proposal would only be an extension of helping non-English speakers understand legal proceedings that are already difficult to understand because of complicated rules and procedures.

The trial court has made establishing more specialty courts a priority. As Justice Mary Hogan Sullivan, director of specialty courts, explained in the Winter 2015 Boston Bar Association Journal, “The Trial Court’s strategic plan envisions that all residents will have access to appropriate specialty courts regardless of court jurisdiction, and that all high need and at-risk communities either have a specialty court or are part of a regionalized court resource model.” 

As the trial court considers new specialty courts that serve a more diverse population, the bilingual language ability of the judge, and perhaps the entire drug court team, may prove vital in attracting more Latino immigrants to choose the drug court path post-conviction and may help to build trust and positivity and, ultimately, reduce recidivism for nonviolent drug offenders in this population. 

Click here to listen to Juárez's MassBar Beat podcast with host Jordan Rich, about the multilingual resources offered by the Massachusetts Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service, and the translation services offered by the courts.

Melissa A. Juárez is an attorney with the Department of Correction. Juárez was a 2017-18 Massachusetts Bar Association Executive Management Board member and serves as a Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys Executive Board member.