"Today when I think of reentry court, I am reminded that nearly every offender sentenced to time in custody will return to the community from whence they came. And thus, every sentencing court is in fact, a reentry court, creating a pathway for the offender’s reentry into society."
[One in a series of articles on California’s Prop 47; reducing less serious felony offenses,(drug and non-drug) to misdemeanors]
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has been quoted as saying, “The [Criminal Justice] System isn’t broke because of Prop 47, the System was broke before Prop. 47”. To hear San Francisco District Attorney and former Police Chief Gascon make such a bold statement is surprising, and more than that, a challenge to those of us working in the Criminal justice System across the nation.
I agree with District Attorney Gascon. Prop. 47 is a huge change in course for a criminal justice system that is used to increasing penalties and consequences for drug users for over a century. Over the past forty years, these less serious drug felonies have become a big part of the criminal justice system’s food chain (and we are paying for it with much needed community resources and overflowing prisons and jails).
Clearly, the courts are a critical tool for getting the drug addicted into treatment and keeping them there. But one dosesn’t need a felony offense and the threat of prison to get it the job done. I have watched from my perch as a judicial officer since 1985, and while drug addiction is a very serious medical and public health problem, drug possession offenses are being over-charged and over-incarcerated by the criminal justice system, even if its intent is to encourage sobriety.
I developed the Oakland Drug Court in 1990 to try to bring reason to a broken system. I went to Washington D.C. and founded the National Assocaition of Drug Court Professionals, to take that rational approach to the national level. Before returning to California in 2001, I wrote a mongraph, “Rational Drug Policy Reform” ( Center for Problem-Solving Courts, 2001). In it I proposed a simple but critical change in the law; the reduction of drug possssion felonies to misdemeanors (Chapter 2, pp. 7-11).
The whole world should be watching as Prop. 47 is implemented. It reduces drug possession offenses and relatively minor property crimes to misdemeanors. It allows those with felony records to petittion the court to reduce their offenses to misdemeanors (and dismiss the offense where appropriate), opening up new opportunities to those stigmatized with a felony conviction. It saves Caifornia taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, freeing jails and prisons for those incorrigible and dangerous offenders who need to be there. It decriminalizes drug possession without legalizing serious drug use.
Idealism and ambition, two seemingly contradictory traits, are often at the heart of reform. While Miami had started the first treatment-based drug court (1989), it would ultimately lose its leadership of the field, with the formation of NADCP in 1994 and its more “universal” approach to the Drug Court Model
1992: MEETING MIAMI DRUG COURT JUDGE STANLEY GOLDSTEIN
IT was kind of like a Circus. A small court, with room for perhaps a hundred persons. Everyone crowded in, talking at the same time, but dominated by the booming voice of the judge. Stanley Goldstein had something of an unusual background for a judge. A former used car salesman and motorcycle cop, he spoke with what sounded like a heavy New York accent and usually over everyone else within the courtroom. Assistant Presiding Judge, Herbert Klein, the architect of Miami’s Drug Court, is said to have picked him because he saw in him special traits that would make for an exceptional drug court judge; tough, street wise and irascible but also caring and funny all at the same time. I learned a lot from Stanley Goldstein.
Stanley would take the bench like a police magistrate in a screwball comedy. He exhorted the masses to pay attention and proceed through a long calendar at a prodigious clip. Congratulating those who did well and castigating those with positive drug tests; he spoke to everyone in the same loud and brash way. The people loved it. He had one joke I heard him tell more than once. “Many of you will notice members of your family pass away as you progress through this program; some of you will fail to appear in court, grieving for your loved ones, sometimes, the same loved-one, two or three different times.”
He let everyone know that he was in on their scam, he was not to be taken for a fool, nor would he put up with “the crap” that many tried to put over on him. I learned to talk straight and sometimes say the outrageous, from Stanley. As a matter of fact, the outrageous was what made the Miami Drug Court work. Most defendants who come to court are either nodding off from drugs or from shear boredom. That wasn’t going to happen on Stanley’s watch. This was rehabilitation and confession as entertainment. Showmanship and education clothed as court proceedings. You could tell he was having a good time and that made all the difference.
[I didn’t visit Miami’s Drug Court until 1992, while the Oakland Drug Court began its start-up in the summer of 1990. We had no information on the Miami program until the summer of 1991, when a two-page summary of the Miami Drug Court found its way to Oakland.]
THE STATE OF DRUG COURT EDUCATION
I was interested in what made the drug court model tick. Partly because I wanted to distill the essence of the drug court for general consumption, partially to establish “universal principles” we could all agree on, and partially to make my name in the field.
When I spoke to Stanley that first time in chambers, I was somewhat in awe. He dominated the court in a way that I hadn’t seen before. But I was also interested in his understanding of what was going on under the hood of the Miami drug court. Stanley didn’t have much to say about that.
[Assistant Presiding Judge Herbert Klein, the architect of the Miami Drug Court, perhaps would have been a better interview; he had been given a year to design the Miami Drug Court, which included visits to existing drug courts and other relevant sites (i.e. the TASC administered Chicago Drug Court, presided over by Judge Michael Getty)]
I saw Stanley often at conferences over the next six to eight years. I learned that what made him a great drug court judge didn’t necessarily make for a great educator. His presentations began and ended with what had been accomplished in Miami.
By 1992, there was an emerging cadre of judges claiming credit for whatever success drug courts had achieved. I wanted us to get beyond drug court judges lecturing on how “they” made drug court work. The idea that one needed the charisma of a Stanley Goldstein to do the work was a serious issue for many who were considering starting a drug court (and one the field needed to overcome).
Yet, anyone who had worked in a functional drug court knew that it was the drug court team and the program’s structure and community base that was critical to the success of the program. Their effective functioning was not getting the attention on the conference circuit or in training sessions that they deserved. It was up to those of us who understood the drug court , to analyze, describe, and publish documents on the workings of the drug court model and the principles underlying them.
1997 proved to be a critical year for NADCP, a year to consolidate the gains of the previous activist years, focusing on establishing a standardized drug court model and institutionalizing the Drug Court on local, state, and national levels
THE DECISION TO REMAIN AT NADCP
As I approached my second year (January 1997) as President of the D.C.-based non-profit, NADCP, I had a decision to make. I had been granted a single year’s leave of absence, in order to go to Washington, and build an ‘education and training organization”. That was my charge and I had done better than I could have imagined. But the year was almost over. I had to decide whether to stay or go home.
Beyond the finality of resigning from my judgeship at the age of fifty. There were the financial penalties I would suffer if I stayed in D.C. My pension would be frozen at eight years, rather than the potential 20-year pension that I would otherwise receive at retirement. On top of that, I would remain a municipal court judge, while all municipal court judges in California were to be uniformly elevated to the Superior court. [In ’96, the legislature had put Proposition 220 on the ballot, the “Trial Court Consolidation Act”, which created a single Superior Court Bench in California.]
Against those penalties, I weighed the possibility of building an organization that could be the base for widespread reform of the criminal justice system. NADCP was sitting at the table along with other organizations, (respected and even feared a bit), putting on major conferences, working the hill as extremely effective lobbyists, the subject of admiration and approval of politicians on both sides of the aisles, training drug court practitioners across the nation through JMI training conferences and NADCP Mentor Sites, and continuing to make astonishing progress, by expanding the number of courts in the field, as well as their scope and reach across the nation.
It was a painful decision, though one that was never really much in doubt. I wrote the Oakland Presiding Judge, at the time, Carlos Ynoztroza, and AOC Director Bill Vickrey, letters of resignation from the California Bench.
PLANNING FOR A DRUG COURT STANDARDS COMMITTEE
Conceptually, national standards were at the very heart of NADCP. By the end of 1996, there was a growing acceptance of drug courts in the criminal justice system. It was clear to some that we ran the risk of having the field hijacked by other organizations. The greater danger was always that the concept would be subverted and co-opted by existing court bureaucracies and structures. Most courts are rigid institutions, full of functionaries who are reluctant to make changes.
There was no question, that Drug Court would be a major challenge for the courts. For too many, the way to implement a reform was to do as little as possible. In the case of Drug Courts, it could simply be adding drug court signage in front of a court department, and continue on as before. It has happened over and over throughout the history of reform. The existing conventional approach usurps and swallows reform whole, leaving little more than superficial change.
Developing field wide standards was critical to maintaining the integrity of the Drug Court Model and an important way to move Drug Court reform forward. Laurie Robinson wanted NADCP to promulgate standards, and so did I. Standards could be used to enlighten the field as to how a Drug Court optimally works, and inform potential mentor court sites of the parameters required for their model (and be part of the requirements for future drug court grant applications.)
2001 was a difficult year. The only good part for me was that I was weaning myself away from my 80 hour workweek. I had my music to return to and for that I was grateful. I played my tenor saxophone and harmonica in a number of bands around the D.C. area (and on many a night, played solo jazz saxophone to the seagulls on the Alexandria Pier).
RESIGNATION FROM NADCP/NDCI
NADCP had become the organization I had dreamed of building, an accepted Institution, a part of the Washington Establishment. I intended to develop projects dealing with Reentry from Prison, DUI Offenses, and Sentencing Systems that went beyond the Drug Court idiom. But the reality was that since the 2000 Conference in San Francisco, I was virtually handcuffed by the Board, under constant scrutiny, with almost no opportunity to move ahead on new projects; in essence a lame-duck President.
Before the end of year 2000 it became clear that senior staff members had wrested control of the dialogue with the Board, and were not going to let go until they got what they were after, my resignation. I decided it was best for me to concede the inevitable and accept “early retirement”.
I submitted my resignation from the Presidency of NADCP, to take effect in early 2001. I would remain as President at least in name, until a new President took over. I also co-chaired a committee screening for my successor.
I knew that West needed to stay at NADCP and that his outsized charm and drive would keep NADCP as a major presence in the field, but his possible selection as a successor was never in issue. There were too many fresh accusations floating around about his stewardship of NDCI and he was too young and new to the job to vie for that position. I never did get to the bottom of the rumors swirling around West. At the time, I believed them to be spread by jealous colleagues that were piqued by his quick ascension to crown prince of NADCP.
When I first told West of my intention to resign, he appeared stricken. He argued against it and when I wouldn’t budge, he proposed that the two of us set up our own organization. I was moved by his offer, but I knew that it would be a mistake. I didn’t want to further weaken NADCP by removing its two mainstays, (and truthfully I didn’t want to compete with or diminish the organization I had worked so hard to create). I remained on the Board of NADCP as an Emeritus member, to monitor the organization, and help West stay on his leadership track.
HELPING TO CHOOSE MY SUCCESSOR
My last significant responsibility at NADCP was to assist in the selection of its new CEO (the board decided that my successor would not be a President, but a more malleable CEO). I screened dozens of résumés with members of a Board selection committee. Most of the applicants appeared to be limited in experience, expertise, and background.
We ultimately came down to a single applicant who appeared to have the drug court background required (she had been Gary, Indiana’s first Drug Court Judge), and had a promising low-key managerial style more in keeping with NADCP’s increasingly bureaucratic structure. With Judge Karen Freeman-Wilson’s ascension to the leadership of NADCP, I began to look for other avenues for my energies.
Sometimes life gives a person the opportunity to do something truly extraordinary. I saw an opportunity, took it; accepting the challenge, risking all, sacrificing much, to move the drug court field as far as possible.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NADCP AND DRUG COURTS TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
Drug Courts (and their progeny Problem-Solving Courts) have had a profound effect upon the criminal justice system and the attitudes of those in it, as well as the media, and the public in general
I think it fair to suggest that the reform movements of the past decade, to decriminalize drug use, turn offenders away from prisons towards alternative sentencing, and emphasize reentry resources, all owe their success (at least in part) to the positive environment that drug courts have helped create over the past twenty five years.
There could be no better testimonial as to how far drug courts have come in changing the national dialogue than President Obama’s special reference to “Drug Courts”, in his major criminal justice reform speech of July 14th 2015, “We should invest in alternatives to prison, like Drug Courts and treatment and probation.”
NADCP itself, waxes eloquent when it talks about the progress it and the Drug Court Movement have made over the past twenty years (see: http://www.nadcp.org/learn/about-nadcp) “Today with 2,734 Drug Courts and another 1,122 problem-solving courts (mental health courts, community courts, reentry courts, DWI courts, etc.) in operation, NADCP has forever changed the face of the justice system. As the premiere national resource for Drug Court practitioners, NADCP established a specialized Institute in December 1997. Today, the “National Drug Court Institute” is the preeminent source for comprehensive training and cutting-edge technical assistance to the entire Drug Court Field. Since its inception, the institute has trained 36,641 drug court professionals in all 50 states and U.S. territories as well as seven countries and developed 37 publications, disseminating them to 456,166 professionals worldwide.”
NADCP has admirers in the academic world as well; Professor Kathleen Hale of Auburn University in her book, “How Information Matters (Georgetown University Press, 2011) focuses entirely on NADCP, the “Champion” Non-Profit Organization in Washington D.C. Professor Hale describes the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) as “the best among extraordinary organizations; whose structure, initiatives, strategies, and planning define excellence in the non-profit world.”