Drug Courts Impact Participants, Courts, and Communities

Ellis_Sarahby Sarah W. Ellis

Voice of the Judiciary

“For four months, I tried to kill myself every day,” Louis ‘Phil’ Theodore recounted to at the Lynn Drug Court graduation ceremony on October 22, 2014 reported by the Lynn Daily Item.  “This drug court went to bat for me, they just never gave up.  Today I can say I consider myself a citizen.”

The Massachusetts Trial Court has undertaken the initiative to expand the presence of drug courts throughout the state, consistent with the national trend toward evidence-based practices in the criminal justice system.  The National Association of Drug Court Professionals indicated in 2010 that more research had been published on the effects of adult drug courts than virtually all other criminal justice programs combined.  (Marlowe 2010).  According to the United States Bureau of Justice Assistance, evaluation studies consistently show that while offenders are participating in adult drug courts, they are less likely to commit crime, and, consequently, states and localities save money on criminal justice system costs.  (BJA citing Government Accountability Office, 2005; Huddleston, Marlowe, & Casebolt, 2008; Marlowe, 2010).

For the judges, clerks, probation officers, police officers, attorneys, and treatment providers who work in drug court sessions, these lofty aspirations are but a backdrop to the intense and daily struggles of the individuals who appear before them.  As heroin and opiate overdoses reach epidemic proportions across Massachusetts, the drug courts have become a front line in fighting addiction.  For those who work in drug court, drug court goes beyond preventing crime: it is a commitment to saving lives.

“When people first come into drug court, you see them at their worst.  They don’t have anybody.  They have stolen so much, and lied so much, and manipulated so much, they have burned every bridge they ever had.  They are raw, on the street, selling themselves, stealing, living in cars, living in shelters, or lucky to be in jail,” observes Lynn District Court Probation Officer Kelley Montgomery, who has worked in the Lynn drug court for fifteen years.  “In drug court they evolve into the person they could have been, had they not gotten into taking drugs in the first place.”

In the City of Lynn, Deputy Police Chief Leonard Desmarais believes that community policing is about fixing problems.  “If you’re only working on the symptoms, you’re not fixing the problem.  If someone is addicted to heroin, heroin is the most important thing in their life.  They’ll commit crimes of opportunity, for which they can and should be arrested.  But if we don’t get them off the heroin, we’re not addressing the root cause, and we’re not fixing the problem.”  Drug courts in Massachusetts are targeted at intervening in the lives of defendants who have a significant, but non-violent, criminal history.  One theory supporting drug court is that targeting resources at this select group of perpetrators will impact crime reduction over all.

“Terry came, and he came with help.”  When a recent drug court graduate spoke to the Lynn Drug Court, he was referring to his own arrest by the Lynn Police Department and Lynn District Court Probation Officer Terence Ward.  Drug courts have fostered partnerships between local police departments and local probation officers that have strengthened information sharing and warrant response.  Probation Officer Terence Ward notes that working closely with the Lynn Police department positively impacts individual probationers, and ultimately lives.  “Due to the rise of heroin use and overdoses in our community, the police and the probation department have come closer, to work in concert, to impact drug addicted people who most immediately need help.”

The Lynn Police Department has been an active partner in the Lynn drug court session, bringing important law enforcement resources to bear on integrating drug court participants back into the community, arresting probationers on drug court warrants, and providing treatment information to families and victims of overdoses.  “The police are very proactive on this issue,” says Judge James LaMothe, the presiding justice of the Lynn drug court.  Judge LaMothe describes a process in which Lynn police officers responding to overdoses takes steps to provide patients and families with information on local treatment and counseling services.   An experienced narcotics detective is also a member of the drug court, to be “our eyes and ears on the street, to provide support for drug court participants in the community.”

Substance abuse treatment providers are also invited to drug court sessions, a practice that furthers information sharing goals and provides the court with input on available treatment options.  Probation Officer Kelley Montgomery emphasizes the importance of working with treatment provides to develop treatment plans specific to each individual in drug court.  “A treatment placement is not just about sticking someone in any bed.  Drug court works as a team to find the best possible treatment match for each person.   The best match can change over time.  Treatment providers have [probation officers’] cell phones and email – there is constant communication.”

The multi-agency involvement in the Lynn drug court highlights issues central to drug court success – the integration of resources and knowledge.  Judge LaMothe reflects, “drug court brings together people from all different perspectives – the defense attorneys, the district attorneys, the treatment providers, and law enforcement.  Everyone understands the idea is to prevent recidivism.  This unified systems approach is what makes drug court work.”  Deputy Chief Desmarais sees drug court as an effort to prevent a vicious cycle.  “We work hand in hand [with the drug court] because we’re dealing with the same population.  If the drug court process is successful for someone, they won’t be an addict, and they’ll stop committing crimes.”

The drug court model adopted by the Massachusetts Trial Court is a post-dispositional model.  After a defendant’s criminal case is disposed, usually by way of a guilty plea or a probation surrender, a defendant may be evaluated by the Probation Department for drug court eligibility.  This process may be initiated by the defense attorney, but not exclusively.  Often the presiding judge or probation officer will be familiar with the defendant and his or her history of addiction motivated crime, and will recommend a screening for drug court participation.

Melrose defense attorney Thomas Belmonte has been representing clients in the Cambridge District drug court for ten years.  He indicates that success in drug court requires a level of commitment from the client to make sobriety a life priority.  “Serving time doesn’t treat the underlying problem.  That’s the reality.  Drug court is not for everyone.  The client has to express an interest in wanting to change their circumstances, deal with their addiction and their recidivism.  A less structured probation doesn’t necessarily prevent a return to the criminal justice system.  A highly structured program like drug court provides an opportunity more comprehensive in nature.  Building life skills, sobriety skills, building a sense of responsibility – that’s developed through the residential treatment and counseling drug court offers.”

A defendant must enter into drug court voluntarily.  The drug court model integrates treatment and services with judicial case oversight and intensive court supervision.  What this means for individuals in drug court is a rigorous regimen of inpatient treatment, recovery home assignments, and eventual community re-entry.  Accountability is central, with regular court appearances and drug screens.  “The goal is not short term recovery.  The goal is life-long freedom from addiction,” says Marie Burke, Drug Court Coordinator for the District Court.  “People can stop using for short periods of time.  But drug court is not just about staying clean.  It addresses the underlying behaviors and emotions that lead people back to substance abuse.  Drug court is about accountability and helping people to make the right choices in life.”

Attorney Belmonte, who takes drug court cases largely on a pro bono basis, emphasizes that drug court cases are very different for defense attorneys than other criminal matters.  “These cases are in many ways tougher for a defense attorney than standard probation cases.  The attorney spends a lot of time going over the client’s rights, and the court’s access to privileged information, which is necessary to get the best out of the drug court model.  The process takes a lot of effort from defense counsel and from the drug court team.  And to enter into drug court, there must be acknowledgement by the client that they want to take this step to make significant changes.  Drug court is for clients who have a longer view – grasping concepts and building a safety network in their life, that’s paramount.  Those are the folks who succeed in the long term.”

For those who work in drug courts, it is about the success stories.  Judge LaMothe describes the impact that presiding over the Lynn drug court has had on him personally and professionally.  “Drug abuse can rip a family apart.  Addicts lie, steal, and completely tear apart the relationships they should hold most dear.  Seeing family members invited to a drug court graduation can be the first time that a family is back together.  When parents, children, or siblings say, ‘thank you, Judge, for saving this person’s life,’ I tell them, ‘it wasn’t me.’  I didn’t save anyone’s life.  The participant did the work.  They got themselves clean and sober.  We gave them that chance, but they did the work.”  Reflecting on the impact of a recent drug court graduation, Probation Officer Terence Ward states, “It is a road to recovery.  Seeing someone who graduated a year ago, still clean and sober, come back to talk to other drug court graduates – that’s the reason why I continue to do what I do.”

 

Sarah Weyland Ellis is the Deputy General Counsel to the Administrative Office of the District Court. She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and Kenyon College.

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