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.

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail