It’s Tuesday. Monday was yesterday, and yeah, I’m aware there was no post. Shit was happening yesterday. Las Vegas saw a gunman take over 50 lives and damage hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Some guy drove a truck into a crowd in Edmonton over the weekend. The internet was aflame and brightly burning with the cries of the world as everyone tried to make sense of the tragedy.
Except me. I made jokes. When it was stated that the shooter in Las Vegas was a country music fan, I was quick to jump on it with “Except, apparently, for Jason Aldean.”
When a gun manufacturer tweeted that “Prayers were the best armor,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying “Except for our products. They don’t do anything about our products.”
When someone asked, seriously, if they should lie in order to donate blood because they were gay, I answered “Yeah, but not about being gay. Just lie about some random shit. Tell’em you’re the King of Sweden or something.”
This is what I do. I respond to tragedy with humor, because many, many times in the course of my work I get to see human tragedy up close and personal. Yeah, it’s not as visceral as responding to a shooting or a burning building, but when you work with people in trying times you tend to see them get ready to fall apart, or watch their entire world end with a single judgment or court order, and it isn’t pleasant to see that shit day in and day out. The rest of the time? The rest of the time lawyers can be some dark sons of bitches. It doesn’t mean we don’t care, though, because we’re still humans…the humor is a coping mechanism for the horribleness of the world, a way to get through to the next case or the next client after something truly terrible walks through the doors of the office.
But sometimes we just need something good. It’s why lawyers have things like “that one case” where they did something good or saw something awesome happen. It helps us stave off the terrible fucking things that sometimes come through our offices.
So that’s what we’re doing today. We’re gonna talk about a good aspect of the legal system and let people have a little time to recover from the fucked up insanity that has been the past three days.
The Judge And I Agree.
When I was interviewing for work right out of law school, one of my interviews was for a judicial clerkship with the President Judge of one of my state’s hardest hit drug counties. Meth and heroin were decimating the population, drug related offenses were on the rise, Children and Youth were hopping about trying to fix broken families and protect neglected children, and the full range of desperation crimes were coming into play. Overdoses were becoming more common, and the small county jail was bulging with non-violent, but horribly addicted offenders.
In the interview, the Judge asked me a question:
“What are your thoughts on drug offenses?”
I knew the Judge was a former prosecutor who had been a veteran of the Reagan Administration’s “War on Drugs” and “Just Say No” campaign. I thought, in the back of my head, that what was being asked was for me to roundly condemn drugs, and drug addicts, and express a desire to see them all locked away for God knows how long without a chance of parole, kept in some dark approximation of the old penitentiary where they would be denied contact with the outside world and forced into silence. I figured that what was needed was some support for the harshness.
Instead I said “I think jail should be a last resort, and I don’t think we provide enough in the way of help to addicts that come into the court system to help them make an honest effort to get clean.”
I was speaking from an area of my heart. I’d watched 30 and 60 days stints in county lockup fail to keep my younger cousin from going back on the needle, and I’d seen how the “bare minimum outpatient rehab” had failed to help him. I’d watched as he became a virtual skeleton living in my grandmother’s basement, and, eventually, I watched him get lowered in the ground as the drug he loved took his life. Hard drugs, guys, are no fucking joke and those who are in the grasp of them can’t really be expected to just let them go. There’s no “suck it up” with those addicts, and I was well-aware many addicts came out of jail with a craving to go get another high to celebrate their release. I couldn’t fucking lie about my feelings.
The Judge nodded silently, leaned across her desk, and said “Mr. Barrister, I completely agree. And that’s why I want to revamp our drug court. Let’s go get some coffee.”
I ended up getting passed over for that clerkship (an Ivy League Asshole who had ‘passed’ on the job ended up coming back around to accept it. This was a pattern: I was frequently ‘next in line’ on the interview circuit until I landed my current gig), but that encounter obviously stuck with me. For all of the doom and gloom that surrounds the justice system, for all of the accusations of an uncaring system, there was a judge who explicitly agreed with the concept that “jail is a last resort” even for criminals that come in front of them in the area of drugs.
Drug Court: Trying To Help.
Drug Courts in the United States started in about 1989 in Miami-Dade County down in Florida, long before bath salts were making people chew off the faces of their neighbors, when crack ruled the street and low-income addicts were becoming more and more numerous. In response to the crisis, and it was a fucking crisis (you can tell by how Pee Wee Herman did a PSA). The idea was simple: what if we were to make some courts that handle only drug problems and, where the offense is only for drugs and for the use of them, we didn’t immediately jump to shoving another person in jail but instead tried to take them and remake them back into a functioning member of society without the monkey clinging to their back?
So the drug courts were born. In theory, these courts are a place where all parties really have one goal: the rehabilitation of the offender. They’re all working towards that same goal, the judge, the lawyers, the probation officers, and the treatment providers. It is not adversarial, in theory, but rather cooperative in nature, with the payoff for the accused upon successful completion being the wiping of the slate and the chance to avoid prison by remaining in the structure of the program. Sort of a carrot and stick approach: the carrot is the chance at a new life, the stick is the fact that when you enter drug court, you’ve already signed a guilty plea or confession to the charges against you so, if you break the program requirements, your ass is going to jail.
Essentially, the accused is not only required to admit the charges, but then must go to outpatient treatment, submit to drug testing, hold down a job, pay their bills…all the things that show they’re capable of following through with the requirements of being a functioning, non-addicted member of today’s society. They have to check in with the court regularly to report their progress and, in some cases, admit to their faults. But, having been in those courts, I can say it isn’t exactly an inquisition. Most of the judges who sit in drug court want the people in the program to succeed. I’ve seen judges give people second, third, and fourth chances to comply with the programs before kicking them out of the program.
At the end of it all, in theory, what you have is someone who has received a second chance not just at law, but at life, and the results are sometimes hard to argue with. Recidivism rates, according to some studies, are as low as 4% among drug court “graduates,” sometimes ranging up to 29%, but still far lower than the general 48% recidivism rate seen among those who are simply sentenced to prison. The court puts those who need help in touch with those who need help through outpatient treatment centers. The court takes a genuine interest in the “fixing” of broken people with, normally, sensitivity and recognition that committing a crime is not always an indication of a bad person.
But It’s Not All Good.
Drug Court is a good idea. A “pure good,” in my opinion. But there are issues. It’s rife for abuse, as some judges who have been accused of tyrannical abuses of power have found out, in that some people take the “tough love” approach once they’ve been on the bench. It can place judges in the line of fire for addiction, too, with at least two drug court judges being in the news for drug abuse (one dying of an overdose). Further, there is criticism that drug court both goes too far, in that it provides too many services to the accused, and also doesn’t go far enough, often because there is no “inpatient” component to many drug courts.
Lawyers, including some close to me, have referred to drug court as a “revolving door,” meant to bolster numbers for the judiciary while keeping the jail from being an overcrowded hellhole, with no reasonable chance of recovery present or intended.
I mean, there are problems there, and we should discuss them.
But not today, okay?
Today let’s just feel good about the fact that at some point the judges out there said “Hey, let’s try to help people instead of just tossing them in jail.”