High on Justice 

Lessons from drug court

Thursday, May 8 2003

Page 4 of 6

Today is Friday, a court day reserved mainly for those who’ve been diagnosed as both mentally ill and seriously addicted. Many come from families with histories of abuse, addiction and degradation, and are living lives of bad choices and perennial poverty — and look it: black women with dreadlocks and strained faces; battered Mexican men in their 50s with the resigned slump and blank eyes of those who know their lives are already over; pasty, bloated white women with mangled hair, rotting teeth and thigh-wide arms; a man who says he’s dying of hepatitis C, and wants to read a poem; and, over in the prisoners’ section, an anomaly on this day — an angelic-looking Vietnamese-American in long fairy-tale braids that make her appear 13, her eyes wide with the wonderment of a child, her wan smile so heartbreaking I can’t bear to look.

Renaldo, who is continuing to be effusively praised by Manley because he’s just completed his treatment program, is now allowing a slight grin to spread across his face as the judge continues . . .

“. . . All your reports are glowing . . . what a wonderful way to start the day . . .”

For almost a decade now, Manley, the supervising judge of all felony drug cases in San Jose as well as the judge in charge of enacting Prop. 36, has been a leader of California’s “Collaborative Justice [drug] Courts” — which began in Alameda County in the early ’90s. They slowly spread as thoughtful judges saw that the old system of catch, punish and release was a failing revolving door. In response, they turned to the rehabilitative approach of drug courts, which now number 146 in California and about 700 nationwide.

The assumption underlying drug courts is that deputy D.A.’s, public defenders, probation officers and drug-treatment professionals — working in unison and led by judges like Manley — can provide the resources, care and follow-up needed to help addicts kick their habits and fix their lives. Since 1989, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, “over 100,000 offenders [nationwide] have participated in the drug court system, and 71 percent of those have either completed their program or are actively participating in one” — an extraordinarily high percentage for a treatment in which false starts and relapsing are, for many addicts, part of the process.

Prop. 36 was intended to make this approach universal instead of occasional.

Manley is encouraging, and his approach is simply unlike anything I’d ever seen in a courtroom. The weight of the state is always there in Manley’s courtroom, of course, ensuring that his clients will comply. “Coerced treatment,” in fact, is a crucial element of the drug-court system, as it is of Prop. 36. “We do coerce and hold people accountable,” Manley had told me earlier. “But it’s not adversarial. Judges are personally involved with each client [as part of a team], trying to get them clean and sober and to improve their lives in many other ways.

“Critics believe that coerced treatment is inappropriate, that people should get treatment when they’re ready and want it. But,” continued Manley, “I’m tired of waiting for people to get ready. There’s nothing that disturbs me more than taking a child from her mother right in the courtroom, and placing the mother — whose life is totally out of control — into [county jail] like I did recently. But that woman had seven felony convictions. But I’m not giving up on her, and we’re going to start over together . . .

“. . . And by the way, Re-nalll-do,” Manley concludes as he’s about to dismiss him, “don’t forget that we’re inviting you to come to our graduation on July 18, so we can celebrate together. Okay?”

Then Stephen Manley, not exactly teddy-bear material, walks down and around his bench, signals for Renaldo to stand up, meets him halfway, shakes his hand and gives him a hug.

Back in the courtroom of L.A. County Judge Haynes, this is John Washington’s make-or-break-it day. The big-bellied, broad-shouldered, 46-year-old ex-Marine is looking good today — especially compared to the guy who preceded him, who’d missed 20 of his 24 12-step scheduled appointments and severely riled the judge.

Standing there with Public Defender Nancy Chand at his side, Washington has what Judge Haynes describes as “a very good report,” and “at the discretion of your program,” she tells Washington, “you are transferred from level three to level one. Keep up the good work.” In other words, he isn’t going to jail.

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