“Racing In the Right Direction:” Specialty Courts in Massachusetts

Burroughs_Allisonby BBA President Lisa Arrowood

President’s Page

It was a graduation, but no one was wearing a cap or gown. Judge Serge Georges’ robes were the only ceremonial garb in the courtroom at the Dorchester Division of Boston Municipal Court on a recent Thursday, where a young woman was about to graduate from the Drug Court Program.

Judge Georges spoke of the “butterfly effect,” a scientific theory which says that even small occurrences can result in big changes. Each participant in the program, he said, is a butterfly. They create change in each other’s lives, and in the lives of their loved ones. The graduate echoed Georges’ sentiment; she spoke of finding the will to stay clean through acts of support, big and small, by the program’s staff and fellow participants.

The session was the first of four visits I would make to the Commonwealth’s specialty courts: Drug Court, Veterans Court, Homeless Court and Mental Health Court.

As a non-criminal lawyer, I had never had the occasion to see or take part in any of the specialty courts. I knew of them, of course; I knew they had a reputation for getting to the root cause of criminal behavior, and for taking a sensible approach towards treating that cause rather than sending the offenders off to prison. And while visiting these courts was something that I was looking forward to doing during my term as BBA President, I wasn’t prepared for how moved, impressed and inspired I would be by the time I had visited the fourth.

The very fact that entire teams of professionals – judges, probation officers, substance abuse and mental health clinicians, public defenders, and assistant district attorneys – are working collaboratively for the betterment of our most vulnerable citizens was a powerful thing to witness. So powerful, in fact, that when my visits had concluded, I knew that I had to find a way to recognize their invaluable contributions to our system of justice.

In that regard, I’m very pleased to announce that I will be awarding the four Specialty Courts with the BBA’s President’s Award at our Law Day Dinner on May 12th.  I can’t think of a more fitting team of recipients to honor on a day that’s set aside to reflect on the role of law and its importance for society.

I think part of what makes these courts so effective is how each judge – in his or her own unique way – establishes an authentic connection with program participants. Judge Georges, for example, grew up in the Dorchester community where he currently serves. And he makes each graduation a community event, inviting other Drug Court participants to attend, and even recruiting his father to supply home cooked dishes for the post-ceremony celebration.

When I visited a Veterans Court graduation, I saw the same caring and supportive process played out in a different way. Judge Eleanor Sinnott – a veteran herself – spoke of courage, perseverance, and camaraderie as the things that carried one veteran successfully through the program at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston.

“You’re a platoon,” she told the veterans in attendance. “And I’m your commanding officer.” It was this environment of support that helped the graduate – despite a temporary relapse – secure a job and complete the terms of his agreement with the court.

At Homeless Court – which is designed to resolve misdemeanor offenses, non-violent felonies, and outstanding warrants for homeless individuals with support and dignity – seven cases were considered. Judge Kathleen Coffey asked all defendants to share their stories of how they became homeless and what aspect of life on the streets was most challenging.  Her genuine warmth and interest in each person’s circumstances empowered the defendants to describe the difficult, and varied, life circumstances that led to hitting rock-bottom. They also shared their motivations for self-improvement, which included the knowledge that they could do better, the need to escape the isolation and constant turmoil of homelessness, and in several instances, a strong desire to make their young children proud.

Judge Coffey encouraged positive progress, telling one defendant they were “racing in the right direction,” and District Attorney Christina Miller did the same, telling another defendant that she was “amazed and encouraged” by their progress.

For many of these people, it was the first time something good was happening to them in a courtroom. I looked around and thought that this is what they need – support, not incarceration.

In Judge Coffey’s words, Homeless Court “is based upon the premise that there is room for treatment, compassion and for recovery within the court system.  It recognizes that homelessness presents a complicated challenge to the courts demanding alternative approaches in the administration of justice. The court seeks to make the justice system more accessible, accountable and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by this most vulnerable population.”

Judge Coffey also presides over Mental Health Court – or Recovery with Justice (RwJ) – which began in Massachusetts nearly a decade ago out of a recognition that an estimated 70 percent of men and women in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.

Working with a mental health clinician from the Boston Medical Center, the probation officer assigned to the Mental Health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant, and creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities. National studies place recidivism rates for mental health courts in the high teens (17-20%), less than half of the rate for traditional courts.

Like the other specialty courts, Mental Health sessions are largely focused on support and guidance.  When one RwJ participant told of a recent relapse, Judge Coffey recognized the slip-up but told the individual she was proud of the progress made since then, explaining that the Court was interested in providing options for success without overburdening the participants.  Her words hit home, prompting the individual to announce to the courtroom, “See all the people here who care about me?  It’s great.”

Having experienced these courts at work firsthand, I am especially gratified to know that Specialty Courts are accessible nearly statewide and that the Trial Court is committed to their expansion and continued improvement.  To help make that a reality, the BBA is advocating in the Legislature for more funding. Despite the Judiciary being a co-equal branch of government, funding for the Trial Court has grown only 7.9% from FY08 to FY16, while the overall state budget has increased 43.3% in that same time period.  I urge lawmakers to decrease this gap.

I am grateful to Judges Kathleen Coffey, Serge Georges and Eleanor Sinnott for welcoming me to their courtrooms. After sitting in on the sessions, I am inspired not only by the profound impact the programs had on the lives of the graduates, but on its potential to meaningfully tackle complex issues underlying criminal behavior.

Having witnessed firsthand the dedication, excellence and impact that these amazing teams are having across Massachusetts; I am thrilled that our Law Day Dinner program is honoring them. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating their work.

You can read about the history of specialty courts, as well as more compelling stories from Drug Court and Homeless Court in earlier issues of the Boston Bar Journal.

Lisa is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. At the BBA, Lisa has served as the President-Elect, Vice President, and Secretary of the Council, the Co-Chair of the BBA Torts Committee, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as various other committees. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and immediate past Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee as well as a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows. 

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