Drug courts – What are we? What do we do? Why do we do it?

Issue July 2011 By Judge Barbara Savitt Pearson

Throughout the country, there are approximately 2,500 drug courts. In Massachusetts, there are 19 drug courts, including one in the U.S. District Court and one in Bristol Juvenile Court. Drug court is the name of a weekly session held in a court before a judge. Probation officers, defense counsel, assistant district attorneys and treatment providers appear with drug-addicted defendants whose cases have been resolved by pleas or guilty findings. Many defendants have been previously found in violation of probation after a surrender hearing.

All drug courts do not operate in the same way. In Lawrence, drug court is held every Wednesday afternoon at 2. Admission into drug court can be attained after an assessment by probation with input from the treatment providers and a colloquy with the judge. Unless the defendant is motivated to change, drug court is not the best option.

Each prospective participant is assigned a mentor from the group who discusses the program to ensure that the drug court is explained from the perspective of a participant. As set out by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the Lawrence Drug Court session follows 10 key components.

For a minimum one-year period, a defendant receives intensive treatment, is regularly tested for drugs and alcohol, appears before the judge once a week while attending phase one of an Office of Community Corrections program, then twice a month for the next six months and once a month for the last three months.

The first phase of the Office of Community Corrections is intense substance abuse treatment, random testing, batterers' or anger management programs, parenting classes and GED classes and/or job training. The second phase is less intensive but includes continued treatment, random testing, and furtherance of programs as necessary for completion. The last phase is a stepped down follow-through with less intensity but continued treatment as necessary. Once a participant completes a GED, acquires a job, permanent housing and is drug- and alcohol-free for one year, he or she graduates.

During the year, if the defendant relapses or fails to continue in treatment or any court-ordered programs, or if a new criminal complaint issues, the judge responds with sanctions that may include an order for residential treatment or the bracelet (house arrest) or incarceration.

At each session, the judge reviews in open court the progress of each defendant. Prior to the session, the judge, probation officers, assistant district attorney, defense counsel and treatment providers (OCC) and the court clinician meet to discuss the progress of each defendant. If noncompliance is brought to the judge's attention, a decision is made regarding the appointment of counsel.

A voice from the defense bar

From a defense prospective, attorney Janine M. Lepore suggests:

The question of whether a client should take part in drug court is a prickly one. To some defense attorneys, drug court is a tantamount to setting a client up for failure; leading to inevitable jail time, albeit not without the client's probation suffering through some death throes of relapse-related violations before its ultimate doom. However, those who defend addicted clients should recognize that, for some people, the structure and support of drug court is a godsend. Many defendants recognize that their weekly status session before the judge provides an additional reason to remain clean on a daily basis. Initially, it appears the added layer of responsibility to the court, and the fear of certain incarceration for a week or more in the event of a relapse, encourage drug court defendants to strive for a drug-free life.

Generally, the first month or so for a drug court defendant involves at least one relapse and resulting incarceration. Those who have more difficulty with their addiction and relapse more than once face longer periods of incarceration with each violation. At times, defendants who have had a particularly difficult time may become discouraged, and begin to wonder whether it would be better to simply serve their time and be done with the whole process. This mind-set all but ensures continued addiction. Drug court is about second chances -- and third, and fourth. It is about eliminating the influence of addiction, and learning to function without illicit substances. For a great majority, drug court helps drug-addicted defendants overcome a problem they could not fight on their own.

For those who can stay with the program, the transformation is nothing short of miraculous. There is almost a visible change in the defendants. Their pride and increased self-esteem is obvious as they recount achieving one goal after the other, week after week. As they gain momentum with each success - whether it is another week drug free, attaining a GED, or employment - drug court defendants seem to stand taller, and appear to be feeling more relaxed and under control than they have felt for a long time. Upon completion of drug court, the graduates, along with the judge and drug court staff, celebrate their accomplishments. Drug court is an important tool in breaking the cycle of addiction. Breaking that cycle is the greatest success of all; not only for the drug court defendants, but for their families and communities as well.

An assistant chief probation officer is assigned to the session. Probation officers who supervise a defendant in the drug court attend on an as-needed basis (i.e. if there is an alleged violation or to support and praise the probationer for an accomplishment).

The Lawrence Court Community Corrections partnership with the Essex County Community Corrections (OCC) is an intermediate sanction program located in downtown Lawrence. It is a clinically driven program designed to support, treat and supervise offenders in custody of the sheriff's department, probation and/or parole. This court-mandated program is run in collaboration with the sheriff's department, the Office of Community Corrections, state probation, state parole boards, and the Essex County District Attorney's Office. AdCare Criminal Justice Service is responsible for implementing the Eight Principles for Evidence-Based Practice in Community Corrections for Effective Interventions.

The focus of the work done within the program is threefold: public safety through security and supervision and sanctions of the newly released offender; holding the offender accountable for his or her crimes through this mandate; and lessening rates of recidivism using treatment, rehabilitation and education of the offender.

Perspective from probation

Justice Beaulieu of the Ontario Provincial Court has aptly defined "probation:"

Probation, by the very Latin roots of the word, means a testing to determine character and qualification. It is a judicial act of grace and clemency ... under which the execution of a harsher sentence is suspended and a milder one is substituted on the very clear understanding that the harsher one will be re-imposed if the person being tested fails to honor certain terms and conditions.

As described by Assistant Chief Probation Officer Beatrice Zipper, "Drug court is a team concept. It is a concerted effort spear-headed by 'The Court' that includes a collection of dedicated professionals who work together to ensure a probationer has all the necessary tools to succeed and make the most of the second chance the court has granted."

Drug court is an effort to break the "addict's cycle of crime." This cycle of crime is all too predictable. A drug addict commits a crime that leads to an arrest. There is a prosecution and a period of incarceration. During the time of incarceration, this individual is temporarily unable to commit crimes. However, once the individual has served his or her sentence, the individual is returned to society with no new tools to combat the condition and returns to a life of crime. The cycle repeats itself.

Drug court is the tool to break that cycle. Probation serves a variety of roles in the process. Probation officers serve as the eyes and ears of the court, and they ensure that the probationer is adhering to the conditions of the "second-chance contract" they signed.

Our goal in the drug court process is to make a probationer's increased positive behavior last. This is done by rewarding them for each successful review at the program and in court. We aim to produce a more confident participant and a future graduate of drug court.

All too often, probationers who violate the conditions of drug court have their legal counsel argue to the court during their surrender hearing their client "was set up for failure." However, my experience with drug court is that we "set them up for success."

Lawrence District Court operates without outside funding or grants. The court clinician helps with referrals for mental health treatment and residential placements. Drug court emphasizes the positive, but does not ignore the negative. The defendants know the rules: no drugs or alcohol use. No borrowed "medicine" from family or friends. No criminal behavior. Mandated meetings and screens are part of "drug court life."

One year of crime-free sobriety during which employment and permanent housing are attained will earn a diploma from drug court at a ceremony that is inspiring and uplifting. As years go by, the positive benefits yield a safer, stronger family unit, as well as a safer community. A peer group of users become a peer group of sober individuals who support one another in their accomplishments. In short, it costs little and yields much. It makes sense and it works.

The 10 key components1

  1. Drug courts integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services with justice system case processing.
  2. Using a nonadversarial approach, prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting participants' due process rights.
  3. Eligible participants are identified early and promptly placed in the drug court program.
  4. Drug courts provide access to a continuum of alcohol, drug and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.
  5. Abstinence is monitored by frequent alcohol and other drug testing.
  6. A coordinated strategy governs drug court responses to participants' compliance.
  7. Ongoing judicial interaction with each drug court participant is essential.
  8. Monitoring and evaluation measure the achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness.
  9. Continuing interdisciplinary education promotes effective drug court planning, implementation and operations.
  10. Forging partnerships among drug courts, public agencies and community-based organizations generates local support and enhances drug court effectiveness.

What are we doing is a statement of our belief in the redemption of human beings. It is a pronouncement from those in authority to some of our least powerful and most ignored citizens that we care about you and want to reach out and help you: your lives and well-being are important to us. The truth of the matter is that this may be the first time in the lives of many of these people that someone is actually listening to them - hearing what they are saying and telling them that they care about them and what happens to them is important. You know, there is a mathematical equation that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. I believe this is also true in human affairs. We tell them we care about them and they begin to feel worthwhile. Some pretty important people (judges, lawyers, and others in authority) are telling them we don't want them to fail - they begin to believe they can transcend

Herbert Klein, Senior Judge, Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Keynote Address at the 1996 Florida Drug Conference; The Power of Connection: Fuel for Drug Courts.