Often, when hearing that I moved to Pulaski from Brooklyn, people will say something along the lines of “Well things sure must be different.” I usually try to explain that I grew up suburban New Jersey so living in town is not that much of a change. One thing that did require adjustment is the way everyone (even people I’d never seen before) waves as you walk or drive by. Even for someone who spent the first 18 years in the same town and graduated high school with most of his kindergarten class, that was a big change to how I perceived community.
I was recently thinking about this as I sat in a very different sort of community, but one that I found even more profoundly moving. It may come as a surprise that I felt this way while sitting in Drug Court in the Pulaski County Circuit Court. As a lawyer, I’ve spent many hours sitting in various courtrooms, some crowded with litigants there to dispute a dry cleaner ruining clothes, and some crowded because of a high profile criminal matter. In those courtrooms, there is often a divide between those whose regular job takes them into court- lawyers, judges, bailiffs, law enforcement; and those who are brought before the court. That divide often being physical, with the public not allowed to cross “the bar” unless called before the judge. In Drug Court, I noticed that all of the program participants not only knew all of the staff assembled but talked to them, shook their hands, and everyone sat in the same section of the courtroom.
Perhaps before we go further, it would be helpful to explain how exactly Drug Court differs from typical criminal proceedings. In Drug Court, an individual finds him or herself before the court due to an arrest for a crime related to the abuse of an illegal drug. Some participants were caught up in the manufacturing of methamphetamines, while others were charged with simple possession. The uniting factor for all of these people is that drug addiction brought them to the attention of law enforcement and unless that addiction is dealt with, would likely bring them back. So Drug Court provides them with an opportunity to get the mental health, substance abuse, and life skills needed to break the cycle of addiction. It requires that the participants – all defendants in criminal matters – enter a plea of either guilty or no contest to their charges. The judge then refers the matter to Drug Court and empowers the judge in charge of the program to monitor the participants’ behavior, and, if there is a violation of the rules, refer them back for imposition of criminal penalties, including jail time. While in the program, participants must attend counseling sessions, take medication, attend rehab, perform community service, and anything else that the social workers, probation officers, counselors and medical professionals prescribe. If the program is completed, then the original criminal charges are set aside and participants rejoin society.
While I was asked by the Court not to use participants’ names, as it might negatively affect their progress, some context is helpful for understanding how different Drug Court is from a normal criminal case. One participant has completed over 1,500 hours of community service and is looking to attend college in the fall. One participant has completed over 300 hours of community service, has regular employment, and is reconnecting with family. Each participant spoke with the Judge and described her own situation, struggles, triumphs, and feelings in a way I have never seen a criminal defendant speak in open court. The presiding Judge, and other staffers provided words of encouragement and repeated mentions of how proud everyone was of the participants, and repeatedly acknowledged that the road to recovery is not linear, but includes set-backs. Some participants faced harsher words, due to failures to follow the rules of the program, including one participant who was ordered removed and sent back to criminal proceedings. Even though one participant failed to complete the program, the Court acknowledged substantial successes, only possible through the program.
As I said, it was unlike any proceeding I have witnessed before. I spend a lot of time (though less than my wife) up with our nine-month-old daughter trying to get her to sleep. I think a lot about what might happen to her as she gets older in a world in which addiction is far too easy to slip into and incredibly difficult to crawl out of. Recent articles highlighting the widespread addiction issues faced in Appalachian communities like ours have made me wonder what kind of response can help stave off this epidemic. Certainly the criminalization of drug abuse has not stopped its spread, and may even have helped it. Some have argued that the isolation often preached as the “tough love” needed to force addicts to confront their issues only deepens the dependency on substances.
At its heart, the root cause of much of the Pulaski’s drug abuse is the absence of a sense of community except when surrounded by others struggling with addiction.
In my mind, the most effective part of Drug Court is that it builds a new community around the participants that helps them see themselves as an asset to their community. We need more programs like Drug Court to help people see themselves as assets to our community. A criminal charge, especially a minor one or one driven by addiction, should not permanently exclude a person from our community.
As a parent, I’ve learned of a whole new world of things to worry about. One worry is what happens if my daughter ends up addicted to drugs, and inevitably is caught breaking the law. I have no reason to doubt that the courts, schools, and wider community would see her problems as an issue we can solve through the kind of support I saw at Drug Court. If that did not happen, my wife and I have the financial resources to hire enough attorneys, counselors, doctors, and other advocates to make sure she was surrounded by the community to provide every chance for her to get better. For many children in Pulaski whose parents do not have those resources, or may be suffering from addiction themselves, the outlook could be much darker. While Drug Court represents an important policy step, much more can be done for a problem that reaches every part of our community. No one’s prospects of escaping addiction should be predetermined by her family’s financial resources.
No one’s prospects of escaping addiction should be predetermined by her family’s financial resources.
When out in the community with my children, I know that others see them as not just part of the community but an important part. I love that about this town, but I know that’s not the case for everyone’s children.
We will never get rid of drugs by reducing the supply; basic economics and forty years of a failed “War on Drugs” has shown us that. We need to acknowledge that drug abuse, and the crime that comes with it, stems from deeper social issues. Our community needs to prioritize treatment options, not simply put people in jail. Our community needs to minimize the costs of incarceration by eliminating cash bail, minimizing fees and cost, and providing additional options for supervised release instead of jail time. Our community needs to make sure that mental health issues are treated, whether in jail or out. The choice is not about spending money or not; either we spend money putting people in jail where they almost invariably get worse, or we can spend our money on programs that help them get better. Our success rate will not be 100%, but that’s an unreasonable standard for any policy proposal. Our community can be an example of the best parts of living in a small town, but it’s a choice we all have to make together.