Drug Court is in Session

The 32-year-old Roslindale woman, a former addict who had been arrested a year ago for heroin possession, stepped to the front of the crowded Mattapan courtroom for her weekly hearing before Judge Robert P. Ziemian.

Wearing gray slacks and a pressed white blouse, she looked like someone on a job interview. She smiled as she faced the court.

“Good morning. You look very lovely,” said probation officer John Christopher, picking up her file and handing it to the judge.

Christopher reported that she had made all her appointments, had passed random drug tests, and had not been rearrested since her last appearance. Case worker Marisa Richardson added that the defendant continued to do well in counseling.

Ziemian paused before rendering judgment. “How’s the baby?” he asked.

“Fine,” she replied, smiling again.

“How old is she?”

“Three weeks.”

“You’re doing great. Keep up the good work. Stay focused. I’m going to give you two stars,” Ziemian said, peeling off two gold stars and affixing them to her record.

The audience burst into applause.

It’s just another Friday in the Commonwealth’s first drug court, a three-year-old experiment in drug treatment and criminal justice. Housed in the basement of an auxiliary building at the old Boston Specialty and Rehabilitation Hospital complex on River Street in Mattapan, the program from Monday through Thursday consists of counseling, monitoring, and drug testing. On Fridays, court is in session.

The program accepts non-violent drug offenders referred from three district courts — South Boston, Dorchester, and West Roxbury. It is one of two formal drug courts operating in the state; the other is in Orange District Court, in central Massachusetts. A similar treatment-oriented court program operates at Worcester District Court, and a new drug court is planned for Haverhill, near the New Hampshire border.

Nationally, drug courts are an increasingly popular trend in criminal justice. A little over a year ago, about 200 were operating. Now there are more than 300, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals estimates that there will be more than a thousand by the year 2000. Their growth is being fueled by millions of dollars in federal anti-crime grants and massive frustration at the local level with traditional drug war policies, which have produced clogged courtrooms, overcrowded prisons, and recidivism rates that approach 50 percent. The need for some kind of solution is clear: Despite years of efforts to curb drug use, 80 percent of people behind bars were involved with alcohol or other drugs at the time of their crimes, according to a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

“The stars were suggested by a former client, and I went along with it.”

“It’s very different from the traditional courtroom atmosphere,” said Ziemian, in an understatement during a recess one recent Friday morning. Ziemian presides over South Boston’s traditional district court the other four days of the week. “The spontaneous applause just happened. The stars were suggested by a former client, and I went along with it. The informality helps the group dynamic. It has been described as a ‘therapeutic court.’ ”

Indeed, few courts in Massachusetts are anything like this one. Defendants are called “clients” or “participants.” Lawyers are scarce, and the ones present say little. Probation officers, defense attorneys, and counselors work together.

About 300 people have passed through the Mattapan drug court since it opened in June 1995 with grants from the federal government and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The idea for trying the program came from the Boston Coalition, a community-based anti-crime group founded in 1993, when Boston neighborhoods were under siege from gang and drug-related violence.

Defendants are sent to the court shortly after arrest, referred by a judge, probation officer, prosecutor, or public defender from one of the participating district courts. Drug court personnel do an assessment of each person, and the judge decides whom to accept. Participants typically are chronic users facing charges of drug possession or other non-violent offenses related to their addiction, such as prostitution or small-time drug dealing. They tend to be in their 30s and 40s, often with a long history of drug abuse.

Once accepted, defendants are offered some form of leniency, usually no jail time or a brief incarceration. Some have their cases continued without a finding, with charges dismissed after 18 months if they don’t re-offend. In return, they agree to participate in intensive group and individual counseling, almost daily contact with drug court personnel, and unrelenting drug testing, usually three times a week.

The court uses a range of sanctions for those who stray, from stricter reporting requirements to more therapy sessions to weekend jail sentences. A pile of handcuffs sits on the table at the front of the courtroom, a reminder that despite the informal atmosphere, this is a real court. Participants who repeatedly fail drug tests or violate other rules can be cuffed and shackled on the spot and taken directly to jail.

The theory behind drug courts is that locking up thousands of non-violent drug offenders does not benefit society or the individual. Drug users take up jail cells needed for more dangerous criminals. Incarceration, by itself, does not solve users’ underlying dependency, and can set them on a path toward more serious crimes. Few prisons provide comprehensive treatment for inmates or support once a prisoner is released. By combining intensive treatment with close monitoring and the threat of punishment, drug courts give offenders a structure on which to change their lives.

The first drug courts opened in Miami in the late 1980s. Others opened in scattered locations across the country in the early 1990s. The 1994 federal crime bill, which authorized a billion dollars for drug courts over five years, opened the floodgates. Drug courts have now been set up in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Early findings on their effectiveness are promising. American University’s Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project in Washington, D.C., which surveyed drug courts across the country last year, reported that recidivism rates for participants ranged from 5 percent to 28 percent. In traditional courts, drug defendants have recidivism rates of roughly 45 percent.

Most people who enter the programs eventually complete their treatment. The American University study found that of the 30,000 offenders who enrolled in drug court programs over the previous seven years, 70 percent either graduated or are currently enrolled. In drug treatment programs offered through traditional courts, completion rates are only 15 percent, according to the study.

“According to all of the judges who have been involved, these courts are much more effective than the traditional process,” said Caroline Cooper, director of the American University project.

“We try to foster an attitude of never giving up on anybody.”

The Boston Drug Court has never asked anyone to leave, although some have dropped out. “We try to foster an attitude of never giving up on anybody,” said Vaughn Jeffries, director of the program. “We never just kick people out.”

Northeastern University’s Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research is now in the midst of evaluating the program. Researchers have been combing through court records and interviewing participants. They are looking not only at recidivism rates for the drug court and traditional courts, but also at how long it takes for recidivists to relapse or commit another drug-related offense.

“When you are dealing with drug-addicted individuals, you have to have a more complicated definition of success,” said Jack McDevitt, assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern and director of the study. “These are people who haven’t functioned as regular members of society in a long time. They are the most challenging of our criminal population. You won’t find 80 percent success rates.”

While Massachusetts is experimenting with drug courts, the state has yet to embrace the concept. “We’ve lagged behind in terms of resources for treatment programs, monitoring, and facilities,” said Sen.William R. Keating, D-Sharon, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Drug courts represent a potential threat to the state’s established court bureaucracy, which fears being splintered into specialized courts for drugs, guns, housing, and whatever future problem becomes a high-profile public concern. Drug courts also give a formal role to private social service agencies, which can make probation officials uncomfortable. And some law and order advocates oppose drug courts because of concern that punishment will be lost in the emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment.

Another barrier to expansion of drug courts in Massachusetts is the cost. Research seems to show that drug courts save resources in the long run. Across the country, the average cost for treatment in a drug court ranges from $900 to $2,200 per person. Savings in jail bed days have been estimated at $5,000 per defendant — which does not include the value of beds freed up for more serious offenders. But drug courts are expensive to set up. The Mattapan program costs about $530,000 a year, most of it to pay salaries of counselors and other staff. Drug courts in Massachusetts and elsewhere operate by piecing together funding from various public and private sources.

“We have enough money to get through February 1999, but then I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Jeffries.

Rep. John H. Rogers, D-Norwood, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is an enthusiastic supporter of drug courts and filed legislation this year to establish them all over the state. He said he recognizes they would be a radical change from the way courts operate now. “It would be a major departure from the current system, and it would be a further fragmentation of the trial court system,” Rogers said.

Whether the legislation will go anywhere is uncertain. The measure now is in a Judiciary subcommittee. Rogers could not assign a price tag to the bill and would not speculate on its fate. A statewide drug court program would have to rely on federal and private money for much of its operating budget, he said. Nonetheless, Rogers is optimistic that drug courts eventually will flourish in Massachusetts. “They are nothing but success stories,” he said. “Every district court needs to be a drug court.”

Lynn, a 35-year-old waitress and longtime cocaine user from Boston’s Hyde Park section, graduated from the court last fall. (CommonWealth agreed not to use full names of participants for this story.) Fourteen months earlier, police had arrested her while she was sitting in a car with a large bag of cocaine a friend had just handed her.

At first she hated the counselors and the constant testing and reporting requirements. Now she believes the rigid discipline halted her downward spiral.

“They gave me a chance. They didn’t condemn me or put me down,” she said. “The support they give you and the constant attention is exactly what you need — even if you don’t know it.”

A divorced mother of two children, ages 9 and 10, Lynn has remained drug free. She says she owes her recovery to Judge Ziemian and others at the drug court.

Meet the Author
“I keep a star the judge gave me on my mirror,” she said. “I look at it every day. It means a lot to me. It represents how clean I am, how good I look, and how good I feel.”

Robert Preer is a free-lance writer who lives in Milton.