By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Los Angeles County judicial leaders, district attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, the sheriff and drug treatment providers started planning for the first drug court in 1992. The first drug court began in May 1994. Los Angeles County now has 12 community drug courts, one sentenced offender and two juvenile drug courts, more than any other county in the nation. This has happened because L.A. judges and others have convened several times each month for over eight years to identify and secure resources and constantly manage the evolution of our courts to incorporate the best techniques and latest knowledge, and to maintain the very high standards of the L.A. drug courts. L.A. judges sit on the State Judicial Council’s Collaborative Justice Court Committee, which provides policy direction and training statewide for drug courts, mental health treatment courts, domestic violence courts and Proposition 36 courts.
Los Angeles County has a large, diverse population. In developing its drug court system, this county has adopted a set of written standards and practices that insure quality, while providing the flexibility that allows the local communities to meet the needs of their residents. Representatives from Los Angeles secured a drug court exemption, preserving pre-guilty plea diversion when the state law eliminated it for all other situations. Los Angeles County benefited from this flexibility and currently maintains 12 extremely effective predominantly pre-guilty plea community drug courts treating in excess of a thousand people every year.
This pre-guilty plea drug court program design has many unique advantages. Addicts are most amenable to successful intervention when they are in the crisis of initial arrest and incarceration. To maximize success, intervention must be immediate and up front. A pre-guilty plea drug court allows the client to enter treatment immediately and to fully concentrate on recovery without the distractions of fighting the case. In the critical first hours after arrest, the client is not placed in the predicament of asking for the help drug court offers while simultaneously waiving other important rights granted to an accused. Furthermore, the defense lawyer may devote the majority of time during the initial interview discussing the client’s need for treatment rather than issues regarding innocence or guilt, waiver of rights, etc. The pre-guilty aspect of the drug court program can be used as a "carrot" to convince clients with severe substance abuse or co-occurring disorders to enter the difficult, intensive treatment regimen of the drug court instead of applying for a less intensive and less structured Proposition 36 program (that requires a conviction to obtain treatment).
Drug courts are dependent upon the creation of a non-adversarial courtroom atmosphere where a single judge and a dedicated team of court officers, staff and treatment personnel work toward a common goal of breaking the cycle of drug abuse and criminal behavior. A pre-plea drug court allows the judge, defense and prosecution to act based on what is best for the defendant’s recovery, instead of using the court’s scarce resources for litigation. The court team can apply the rewards and sanctions that help lead to recovery. The public is protected as the clients who graduate from drug court will become productive citizens, while the individual who does not make it can still be tried, convicted and punished.
Los Angeles County, as well as the state of California, is home to a large immigrant population. Efforts to secure permanent resident status or citizenship could be defeated by a criminal conviction, which may potentially lead to deportation and the ensuing breakup of families. Pre-plea drug courts avoid this danger to the immigrant and the family that relies on them. The successful completion of a recovery program will not only help the immigrant, but also his or her family and the community. Drug court participants must either be enrolled in an educational or vocational program or maintain employment prior to successful completion of the program.
Criminal convictions make it much harder for all individuals to obtain meaningful employment. Additionally, conviction can cause the loss of a professional license or prevent obtaining such license. By allowing recovery without requiring the entry of a plea, pre-plea programs speed the process of re-entry into the workforce. It is not uncommon that persons with a conviction, even if not sentenced, are denied employment.
Since a disproportionate number of our minority communities are impacted by the judicial system, the availability of pre-plea drug court programs is essential to the protection of their employment status. The judicial pioneers in Los Angeles County, in adopting this pre-plea drug court design, demonstrated uncommon insight and determination to develop a treatment program that would facilitate the clients re-entering society.
That is why it is so bewildering that Mr. Domanick cites Judge Manley in Santa Clara as a paradigm for the L.A. judges. Although Judge Manley is a recognized leader in treatment, in contrast to the L.A. Drug Court judges Judge Manley insists that in order to obtain treatment those suffering from the disease of addiction must plead guilty! In fact, Judge Manley is leading the effort to do away with funding for pre-guilty drug courts. We in Los Angeles County have learned that one size does not fit all. Los Angeles County’s dedicated judges, district attorneys, public defenders, treatment counselors and sheriff’s personnel have worked as a team to bring success to the client. The court teams have developed different tactics and strategies to mandate clients to reach the common goal of producing a productive citizen.
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