FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Inside America’s Drug Courts

by MARGARET DOOLEY-SAMMULI

In Glynn County Georgia, reports This American Life, 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. Another national survey found that fully one-third of drug court participants do not have a drug problem.

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.

MARGARET DOOLEY-SAMMULI is Deputy State Director, Southern California, for the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs, and a contributor to DPA’s new report, Drug Courts Are Not the Answer.

 

 

 

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail