In Drug Courts, Judges Practice Their Own Version of Justice - And "Treatment"

In Glynn County Georgia, reports the popular radio show This American Life this week, Lindsey Dills is the victim of horrifying injustice in the name of drug treatment. For forging two checks on her parents’ checking account when she was 17, one for $40 and one for $60, Ms. Dills ended up in that county’s drug court for five and a half years, including a total of 14 months behind bars – and then, when she was finally kicked out of drug court, she faced another five-year sentence for the original offense, including six months in state prison. In other Georgia counties and in other states, the penalty for this first-time, low-level offense would have been a term of probation and/or drug treatment.

Ms. Dills’ harrowing journey includes a lengthy stay in solitary confinement, being denied access to prescribed anti-depression medication and a suicide attempt. When she entered Glynn County drug court, Ms. Dills had no idea that she was entering a Kafkaesque world in which she had virtually no rights, was subject to the whims of a single dangerous judge and would end up losing years of her life in a dark, unexamined corner of the American criminal justice system.

Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams, who runs the Glynn County drug court, thought she was running her drug court according to national standards. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) says she’s got it all wrong. Judge Williams’ drug court may be unique. But, according to a new report by the Drug Policy Alliance, drug courts across the country exhibit similar (though , one hopes, less extreme) problems.

How is it that Judge Williams is free to steal a decade of Ms. Dills’ life, wreak similar havoc in the lives of so many others and remain on the bench? The fact is that, in drug courts across the country, the judge is king – and doctor.

The NADCP works to educate judges and other court personnel about addiction, to urge drug courts to focus on people with a history of law-breaking that is linked to a drug problem (rather than people facing a first-time drug charge), and to emphasize that incarceration does not “treat” addiction. Like other industry groups, it also serves to promote drug courts through public relations campaigns and to secure increases in federal funding for the programs. The NADCP has no authority over the nation’s more than 2,000 drug courts and, as a spokesperson tells This American Life, the group is aware of at least 150 drug courts that do not operate according to the best practices it promotes.

The Drug Policy Alliance is concerned that the number of drug courts whose practices may actually increase the criminal justice involvement of people struggling with drugs – as well as of people who do not have a drug problem but are convicted of a drug law violation – may be far greater.

Drug courts are locally developed and locally run. In them, judges have near complete freedom to choose who to accept, what kind of treatment to mandate, who to incarcerate and for how long and when to deem a participant a “success” or “failure.” They lack national standards and, worse, are not accountable to any authority.

Despite the NADCP’s recommendation that drug courts focus on cases involving people who have lengthy criminal histories and who actually have a drug problem, for example, a national survey found that roughly half of drug courts exclude people on probation or parole or with another open criminal case, 49 percent actually exclude people with prior treatment history and almost 69 percent exclude those with both a drug and a mental health condition.1 Another national survey found that fully one-third of drug court participants do not have a drug problem.2

Drug courts that focus resources on people without much of a criminal record, especially those who do not have a drug problem, do little to reduce costs and may actually increase incarceration. This is because many of these individuals would not be facing significant time behind bars were they sentenced conventionally and may experience repeated incarceration while participating in drug court. Drug courts rely heavily on incarceration as a sanction for failing a drug test, missing an appointment or having a hard time following the strict rules of the program. And, when any of them are later kicked out of a drug court, they may be incarcerated for longer for the original offense than if they had been conventionally sentenced at the outset – because they have lost the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge or because they stipulated to a longer sentence in order to enter drug court.

Drug courts have grown dramatically over the last 20 years thanks to moving success stories and enthusiastic proponents within the criminal justice system. These success stories are real and deserve to be celebrated, but they provide only a partial picture. Back in Glynn County, Judge Williams’ drug court has its own success stories. But what happened to Lindsey Dills is happening to others. Drug courts must be standardized, they must be held accountable and they must not be our primary policy approach to drug use and addiction.

Footnotes:

1. Bhati, Avi, John Roman, and Aaron Chalfin, To Treat or Not to Treat: Evidence on the Effects of Expanding Treatment to Drug-Involved Offenders, Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2008.
2. DeMatteo, David S., Douglas, B. Marlowe, and David S. Festinger, “Secondary Prevention Services for Clients Who Are Low Risk in Drug Court: A Conceptual Model,” Crime and Delinquency 52, no. 1 (2006): 114-134.

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