In drug court, “Some days are better than others,” according to Pulaski Circuit Judge Mary Spencer McGowan.
This particular Thursday is sort of a mix. Of the probationers appearing before her, some have passed all their required drug tests and attended all the required counseling sessions and meetings with probation officers. These she congratulates and wishes well. Some she says are very close to completion of the program, which means close to getting off probation and in some cases having their drug convictions expunged from the record.
“Sometimes they’ll amaze you,” she says after court. That is, they’ll rid themselves of drug habits, get better jobs, be re-admitted to professions that had barred them, reunite with families.
And sometimes they won’t. Many of those appearing before the judge today have not met the requirements. These she questions sharply, warns that they’re in danger of failing the program, which means revocation of probation and possibly time in the state penitentiary, a fate that their participation in the drug court program has allowed them to avoid up to now.
At one point, the judge orders an arrest warrant for a young man who doesn’t appear when his name is called in court. (What McGowan calls her “baby courtroom” won’t hold all the people who come to drug court. Most have to wait outside until they’re summoned.) Eventually, he straggles in an hour or so late. The judge cancels the arrest warrant, but she is unimpressed with his excuses for his tardiness — vague stories of car wrecks in Conway — and his failure to meet all the program’s requirements. There is also some problem about the drug-treatment fees he’s supposed to have paid. He says his fiancee is taking care of that. She has a job, he says, and he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he, the judge asks. He doesn’t know. “Well, I do. It’s easier to let somebody else take care of you.” This man is given one more chance to shape up. One suspects he’ll muff it.
Then there are the in-betweeners. A man who looks to be in his 50s has missed a dozen or so drug-counseling meetings, for reasons he does not or cannot make clear. On the other hand, he has dutifully shown up for as many drug screenings, and passed them all. Questioned by the judge, he says he has an 11th grade education, but he confirms his probation officer’s report that he can’t read. The judge urges him to find some way to keep up with the schedule of required meetings, and to attend all of them.
Later, McGowan says, “He doesn’t process things well.” The drug program is not ideally suited for people who have mental shortcomings as well as substance abuse problems, she says, but there’s nowhere else for them to go. Still, this offender does not constitute a failure of the drug court, she says. “What Mr. … can do is not what others can do. He’s been in this program a long time, and he’s stayed clean. There are different ways of measuring success.”
The question of how successful Arkansas drug courts are was raised rather forcefully in an anonymous letter to the Arkansas Times recently. The writer apparently had or has access to information in the offices of the state Department of Community Correction, the parent agency of the 28 drug courts in the state. The DCC suspects a disgruntled former employee.
The letter said, for example, that the Sebastian County drug court had received a federal grant of almost $1 million, and that the Sebastian County court supervised 70 offenders at a per-day, per-offender cost of $37.22, or an annual cost of over $13,000 per offender. “Compare that cost with the cost of regular probation-parole supervision at a cost of $1.54 per day, per offender for an annual cost of $548.24 per offender,” the letter said. The DCC did not challenge these figures, though it emphasized that the Sebastian County drug judge obtained the federal grant on his own to expand his court. DCC said it couldn’t provide per-day, per-offender probation costs for the other 26 drug courts, but it said that per-offender costs are higher in drug court than in the regular probation system because supervision is more intense, thus requiring a smaller case load for probation officers, and counseling services are provided. “DCC’s cost per day for a drug court offender is $5.40 per day and DCC’s cost per day for other offenders under supervision is $1.47. The agency said it did not calculate the local costs of the drug courts. (Drug courts are served by the regular judges, prosecuting attorneys and public defenders in the judicial district, but they require the state to hire drug counselors and additional probation officers.)
Besides complaining about cost, the anonymous correspondent claimed that the drug courts are “ineffective,” that they have an “almost non-existent” graduation rate. “Before the taxpayers of Arkansas spend more money for drug courts shouldn’t DCC have to at least show that the programs are effective … “
In a written response, DCC public relations officer Rhonda Sharp said:
“The DCC believes that drug courts are effective and is currently collecting data to measure the effectiveness of the program. … By putting someone in drug court [rather than sending them to prison] you keep a family together — mom or dad with their children — and you keep a taxpayer contributing to his community rather than becoming a drain on the state’s limited resources for corrections. Drug courts may not be the only answer to substance abuse problems, but it is the best one available to DCC at this time.”
n The anonymous correspondent also suggested that judges and prosecuting attorneys have lost faith in the drug courts. In Pulaski County, which has the oldest and largest drug court, that is not true. Both McGowan, the judge, and Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley are drug-court believers. To be eligible for drug court, a defendant must plead guilty, say he wants to go to drug court rather than through the regular court system, and the prosecutor has to agree.
Serious drug dealers don’t appear in drug court. Drug court offenders generally are charged with simple possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, not possession with intent to deliver. “These people are addicts, not dealers,” McGowan says. In regular court, they might receive a sentence of 3 to 10 years. Assuming there was a place for them in prisons already overcrowded with drug offenders, they wouldn’t get the counseling and the intense one-on-one supervision they get in drug court, she says, and when they’d served their prison sentence, they would most likely return to the habits that got them arrested the first time.
The Pulaski County Drug Court began in 1994, under former Judge Jack Lessenberry. After he retired, McGowan took over in 1996. She holds drug court a couple of afternoons a week. She is generous with her wisdom.
To an offender who is making progress toward remaining drug-free: “You’ll be amazed at how much better short-term memory you have after you get off marijuana for awhile.”
To an offender who is having problems with the drug tests: “You keep failing to produce a specimen. You need to drink more water. Cokes won’t do it. They have salt. You retain.”
To an offender who says he’s missed meetings because of problems with an electronic record-keeping device: “Get a regular calendar. Don’t fool with those fancy gadgets.”
To a young male offender who has children of his own, but virtually no income, and who lives with his parents: “If you’re big enough to father children, you’re big enough to help support them. You shouldn’t be living off your parents.”
To a reporter: “When the drug screening catches them using drugs, the drug is almost always marijuana. Most of them were arrested for other drugs, but it’s marijuana they can’t give up. They started using it when they were 11 or 12.”
To the world at large: “The alternative to drug court is that we build more prisons. That never seems to change anything.”