VOICE OVER NARRATOR
In 1989, the first drug court opened shop in Miami. It's mission: to break the cycle of addiction to alcohol or drugs and the crimes committed in the pursuit of controlled substances; to stop the overload of court cases, mounting jail sentences and spiraling recidivism; and most importantly to get the addict on the road to recovery and responsibility and self sufficiency.
Mecklenburg County's Drug Treatment Court program, named S.T.E.P., for Supervision, Treatment, Education and Prevention, began in 1995, with almost immediate results. Drug Court works because of a non-traditional court system: Instead of the district attorney squaring off against the public defender and his client, with the judge in between, all three parties work together for the good of the client.
Windows Media Player v.7.0 or higher needed.
This non-adversarial system may seem counterproductive to you Public Defenders or District Attorneys used to practicing conventional trial law - if you can't argue the case to win it, you may feel unclear about your role in the court room. As a judge you may find yourself in uncharted waters, no longer meting out punishment, but instead making decisions about substance abuse treatment. The whole point to Drug Treatment Court is not winning or losing a case, or fitting punishment to a crime, it's about rebuilding lives.
As a public defender, district attorney or judge, you may feel you've learned enough about trial law. You're good at what you do. So why change the way you practice law? Why consider working with Drug Treatment Court?
One of the goals of any criminal justice system is to rehabilitate people and quite frankly until drug court came along we were only giving lip service to that. This is the first step we've actually made in breaking the cycle that has people coming back to court over and over and over again.
As a prosecutor, frankly, I was tired of seeing the same people and willing to step out and try this and amazingly I was one of the first to admit it works.
... so I was having this internal "I want to be part of this solution dilemma" ... and I felt like, okay, this is something that we can do that can help our clients get out of that revolving door.
As a prosecutor I was involved with the Superior Court Drug Treatment Court Program for a number of years and it was very exciting for me to participate in a program where there was actually some change and there was actually some hope for offenders rather than just rolling through the system time and again.
There was an opportunity for them to actually be pulled from that cycle and to receive the help that they need, the treatment they needed, the guidance they needed, the authority that they needed from the judge and to work together as a community to really create some true change in their lives.
I have worked with Drug Treatment Courts as a defense attorney for the last five years because it allows me not only to advocate for clients but to participate in a program that provides clients with the resources and the support that they need to overcome the underlying issue that has brought them into the court system in the first place and to go out into the community and have a lifetime of recovery and become productive members of the community.
I spent about two years working with the S.T.E.P. Court programs and by far found that to be the most satisfying experience of my entire five year career as a prosecutor.
The Drug Treatment Court is a remarkable collection of individuals and a remarkable collaboration of prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, judges, treatment team members and administrators all with a single purpose in mind.
That single purpose being to intervene in a way that positively and permanently changes an individual's life who suffer from substance abuse issues and it is a collaborative effort that sometimes requires intervention with various techniques including some punishment, but it's all usually collaborative all working together for the individual and the defendant in a way that seeks to achieve what we want, which is the reduction or elimination of any recidivism by these citizens of our community. So that they can go forward and be productive in their lives, in their families' lives.
We started this court without any funds, we started with all volunteer help from the District Attorney's office, from the public defender's office, from the probation office and from the treatment provider, and it was quickly apparent to all of us as court professionals that we absolutely had to work together.
Drug court will not work without it being a team. It is a collaborative effort, and there is not one entity in that room that is more important than the other.
... you've got a number of individuals involved, all of whom are from separate areas of the procedure. You've got the district attorney, you've got the public defender, you've got the probation officer, you have case managers and then you have the treatment facilities and like any other joint team effort its always helpful for one member of the team to understand what the other one is doing and have some investment in that process.
And when you form a team there is certain bonding and collaboration among that team that I think works out for the good of the participants in the program.
So there's the internal part of it making sure that when we step out into the courtroom or when we have those sessions where we all look at the case that we can talk about it amongst ourselves. Not necessarily agree all the time but at least talk about it and speak the same language so that we can get to the result that we need.
Sometimes being arrested is the best thing that happens to someone if they have an immediate response. If time goes by and there is a chance to forget about it the effects of the drugs and the withdrawals start taking over then we have lost an opportunity to really make a difference. Sometimes you have to strike when the iron is hot. Early intervention once someone has been caught or arrested or is in the courtroom makes the biggest difference because then the brain can connect the two together.
JUDGE SHIRLEY FULTON
Well, I think drug abuse; drug addition is a disease like any other disease. I am a survivor of breast cancer and I know that early detection, early treatment is the key to success. Same thing with drug addiction. Early detection, early treatment is the easiest way to have success. If you delay then your likelihood for success decreases the longer you delay.
... it really is an opportunity that should not be seen as punishment. There can be a punishment component if you don't work the program but it truly is an opportunity not only to help yourself in the court system but to also look inside personally and fix all the things that got you right where you are and have a light at the end of the tunnel.
Having the ability to go to a client and say "instead of looking at more jail time we're looking at helping you. Looking at you getting at staying clean and sober and getting your life back, staying out of jail, or of course you can go to jail if you'd like. I can work that out for you too."
(Judge sends client to jail)
... there is nothing different between court treatment and your normal out-patient or in-patient clinic except the fact that we got the criminal charge and the criminal justice system standing over `em with a substantial hammer if they don't perform. And so we can impose some lack of tolerance on them that I mean most treatment centers, in patient or out patient the person goes in there and it's voluntary and if they want to walk out they walk out. You can't walk out of our program.
As far as a stand point of a client, you know, one of our responsibilities is to zealously represent them and do what is in their best interest. Sometimes what's in their best interest is to get a charge reduced, plead guilty and try to get time served and get out of jail, but what's truly in their best interest, if you can enroll them in it, is to get clean and sober and stay on track with their medicines and appointments and keep them from coming back into the system you cant always convince them that's in their best interest and when you're able to get them on board I think it really makes a difference for everybody that's involved.
I'm a defense attorney and have been for 20 plus years and I am an enthusiastic supported of the whole S.T.E.P. program. I have had many clients come through the program successfully and its one of the few things we get to do as defense
lawyers that is really a win, win, win all the way around for the whole system.
... it's a win for me because I come up with a way to get my client completely out of trouble through district court S.T.E.P. with charges dismissed if they successfully make it through the program and it's a win for my clients not only for get out of the charges but invariably they come out of this thing as different people.
(Clients receiving diplomas)
I don't know of any other system where the district attorneys and the public defenders are working together on a common goal of making sure that these people are getting the treatment they need and all the resources they need.
There is not a single graduation that did not bring tears to my eyes and it gives me chills now to think about some of my favorites that I actually got to know and saw from rock bottom, I'm getting teary eyed now, rock bottom to the top of the mountain. And it didn't always happen in a year sometimes it took two years but when they got there, there was no turning back.
That is a unique opportunity as a defense attorney, to participate in that process and that collaborative effort and also to witness that success. To see that client for that one year or more overcome all of the things that they walked in the door with and to graduate and be a success.
And so when I have clients come in that you just see the signs and you know what the signs are after a while of drug use and drug abuse to know that if they go into S.T.E.P. Court treatment that in just a few months they are gonna be a lot better and hopefully you're not going to see them in that revolving door that is the courthouse.
The benefit that it made for me was that it basically validated what I was doing was worthwhile. That I was making a difference in someone's life and that I was assisting the courts to make a difference for my client.
And so I tell my clients this is one of the only parts of the system where everybody wants you to succeed and so if you give it a try, you're gonna succeed cause they're gonna help you through it and those folks reinforce that from the very first time they meet `em. So it's really just a great program.
Many of my clients come back to the Drug Court from time to time to check in and to tell their success stories to the participants in the Drug Treatment Court and everyone is so proud of them when they do come back because they have been born again, so to speak, and it is a celebration that we all rejoice in when we see their successes when they come back.
And so the lesson for any court professional coming into this process perhaps on a brand new basis is to sit down with and listen to the people who have been involved in this program for a while and understand its processes.
... and be willing to set aside perhaps a number of prior beliefs about alcoholics and addicts and how they are best accommodated to the criminal justice system and put aside any preconceived notions about these and wait and see how the process works. And I think they will find if they have an open mind that the process does work and they can happily be a part of it.
Drug Treatment Court is making a difference in the lives of addicts. You can make a difference, too.