A Day at the Drug Court - Page 2

By Sarah Beller 03/05/13

Treatment-based drug courts are more widespread than ever; advocates say they humanely cut crime and save cash. So why are they controversial? The Fix sits in on some hearings.

A mural by participants at the computer learning center of the
Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court
Sarah Beller

(page 2)

"Hennessy," he says.

"You knew you had court today?"

He takes a breath: "To be honest, I need serious help. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I know it was stupid, but you know...”

"No," says Judge Ferdinand grimly. "I don’t know. I really don’t."

"I just need to be a stronger individual and get support, and use consequential thinking," he says, rocking gently from side to side.

"Why do you drink?" she asks.

"I don’t know. I be trying hard to change. I just want to go to school. I keep sabotaging myself."

The judge turns to the defense attorney: "OK, I want to see Mr. C--- here every Friday. The next positive test for alcohol I see, I want this case remanded. Good luck, Mr. C---."

"How do you justify imprisoning people for manifesting the symptoms of their disease?" asks the DPA's director, Ethan Nadelmann.

Mr. C--- picks up his book bag and ducks out through the back door, head down.

Judge Ferdinand later tells me that she and her colleagues are trained to understand the disease model of addiction. “We recognize that drugs take away the brain’s ability to hold you accountable,” she says. “Relapse is part of addiction, and we try to figure out what to do about it.” Courts like hers draw a distinction between relapse and noncompliance: “Relapsing but doing treatment is a treatment issue,” Deutsche says. “But If they're not complying with what the court is asking them to do, we have a waiting list of people trying to get in. We sometimes say, 'we’re gonna have to let you go,' though it’s not an easy decision."

The DPA’s director, Ethan Nadelmann, sees a "fundamental paradox" in a drug court based on the disease model. "How do you justify imprisoning people for manifesting the symptoms of their disease?" he asks me. The DPA also disputes drug courts’ overwhelming use of abstinence-only programs, rather than more harm reduction. ‘Whether [the disease] is hypertension, diabetes or drug use, punishing people for straying from their treatment plans, falling short of treatment goals, or relapsing is contrary to core health principles," says the DPA report. The participants with the best chance of compliance are those who do not actually have an addiction, the DPA notes, while those genuinely struggling with compulsive drug use are more likely to end up in prison.

The DPA doesn’t dismiss drug courts outright, but argues that they divert scarce funds from approaches that it considers more effective, like community-based treatment. This is especially important, says Nadelmann, when arrests and incarceration statistics reflect a profound race and class bias. In 2009, for example, the NYCLU reported that black people and Latinos comprise over 90% of those imprisoned in New York for drug offenses—although most users of illegal drugs were white. The figures at the Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court are similar, confirms Joseph Mandino, director of the Brooklyn Treatment Court Program: About 75-80% of their clients are black, about 15% Latino and about 10% white. "Wealthy people who struggle with addiction often can deal with it in a private setting. Poor people can often only access treatment through the criminal justice system,” Nadelmann says. Even within the drug court system, according to the DPA, the disparities are striking: Black participants are at least 30% more likely than whites to be expelled from drug court.

Changes the DPA would like to see in the drug court system include pre-plea rather than post-plea entry criteria, ensuring that people like Derrick don't have to plead guilty to certain crimes—thus waiving their right to a trial—to be accepted into treatment. There’s also "huge evidence" that harm reduction is effective for many people who fail at abstinence, says the DPA. The organization wants drug courts to adopt more objective admission criteria, too. But even if these adjustments were made, the DPA would ultimately prefer to see a US drug-law model more like the one in Portugal—where low-level possession of all drugs was decriminalized in 2001. "When you see Portugal succeeding," Nadelmann says, "it raises policy and moral issues about continuing to invest in a drug court approach, as opposed to the health system."

For now though, drug courts are a growing element of national drug policy. What they uniquely offer, Judge Ferdinand says, is a sanction-and-reward system and a set-up that allows clients waiting for their own session to get the message. "If the person is not complying," she says, "I immediately sanction them—they get a penalty. The other people see, ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen to you if you don’t comply.’ And they also see the success stories and think, ‘maybe I could do that.’ There’s no reason to want to stop [using] if you believe life will still be shitty after. These people need to believe that if they stop using, life will be better."

Near the end of the day, David, a young man, also black, with glasses and earrings, takes his place before the judge.

"Your attorney has told me you've had another excellent report,” Judge Ferdinand says. “You’ve participated, attendance is perfect, and you've continued to be clean and sober. I see you credit your family with motivating you?"


"What else do you think helped?"

In a monotone, David replies: "Staying sober and doing what I’m supposed to do."

Led by the judge, the courtroom breaks into a smattering of applause. There is no visible reaction on David’s face. The judge shakes his hand, and presents him with a gift "from all of us—the treatment team," as well as a certificate stating that he has passed on to the next level of his treatment.

As David walks out impassively, the young man with the braids, still in the pews awaiting his turn, nods at him. He looks hopeful.

Sarah Beller is a writer and social work intern who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, xoJane, Lilith Magazine and Thought Catalog, and frequently in The Fix.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.