Drug Court gives addicted felons one last chance—and they’re making good use of it
Outside Courtroom One of the Butte County Courthouse in Oroville, a group of people gather on benches to await their day in Drug Court. As they talk among themselves, the sense of an unspoken bond emerges—all of them are addicts, criminals, substance abusers. All of them have been caught and convicted. All know that if they screw up this time, as they typically have so many times before, their lives will be handed over to the Department of Corrections, and they may never get them back. You can spot the newcomers right away. They look curious and out of place. Some seem cocky, perhaps thinking that they have fooled the system, that they have landed a free and easy ride out of the joint.
The ones who have stuck with the program know better. They smile and joke with each other, talking about all the hoops they have had to jump through, the friends they have lost, the wild times lurking attractively in their memories, calling out to them every time something goes wrong or right—memories that beckon the addict to pick up the needle, pipe or straw just once more for old time’s sake.
For the participants in Drug Court, life isn’t easy. While these nonviolent drug offenders are getting a second chance, they will have to put out their maximum effort to make it work. Many began using drugs and alcohol so long ago, they barely remember sobriety. They cluster together outside court, sharing tips on programs, anecdotes about their feared and favorite authorities, their meetings and steps. In this place, this final detour from prison, they are all in various stages of finding their way.
But the story behind Drug Court is much bigger than the battle for self-control that these addicts are facing. The approach Butte County has taken in dealing with substance-addicted criminals may be nothing short of a revolution in criminal justice, a revolution that the Butte County Drug Court team wants to spread to every court system in the country. If it works here, they argue, it can work anywhere.
For Tricia Nuki, Drug Court was literally a lifesaver. Less than two years ago, she was homeless, Dumpster diving, high on speed, and had a warrant out for her arrest when she was picked up by Chico police. A teenage alcoholic who went on to become an intravenous meth addict, Nuki had been in and out of jail for various hustles related to her addiction. This time, she was facing serious prison time. Her family had tired of her bad decisions and had all but given up on her. Her only friends were fellow users. The law was breathing down her neck. When she landed in Drug Court, observed a bailiff, “she was tore up.”
“I was ready to take my own life,” Nuki said. “I was out there on the streets, I knew I was wanted [by the police], and the drugs weren’t working any more. I didn’t know where else to turn. I didn’t want to be here any more, just wanted to check out.”
Even once she had started the program, many thought she wouldn’t get through it.
“We almost gave up on Tricia Nuki, but there was something about [her], a flicker of hope,” announced Butte County Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens at Nuki’s graduation two weeks ago. Standing with his arm around the clean and sober, gainfully employed, eight-months-pregnant and soon-to-be married Nuki, Judge Stevens beamed with a fatherly pride, gently chiding those who had been ready to let her slip through the cracks.
“Today is a great day for me,” Stevens said. “I get to say, “I told you so.”
Stevens, perhaps the main driving force behind Butte County’s enormously successful experiment with “collaborative” or “treatment” courts, has earned the privilege of issuing a lot of “I told you so"s. In the eight years drug court has been in existence in Butte County, it has graduated more than 450 addicts, saving most of them from lengthy prison stays. But more than that, it has proven that the criminal-justice system works better when the courts temper punishment with research and compassion.
The premise is simple: Forcing drug addicts to give up the lifestyle that has turned them into criminals saves not only the lives of the addicts; it also saves society the cost of their addiction. If the court can find a way to address the reasons people commit crimes in the first place, it can stop them from committing more crimes, thereby saving countless lives and taxpayer dollars in the process. It sounds to many like a “touchy-feely” approach, but as drug courts continue to crop up all over the country, the number of its detractors is in decline.
The fact is, whereas traditional criminal courts often fail to rehabilitate people, the drug court model actually works, and the numbers don’t lie. A third of all felony convictions in state courts are drug offenders. In federal courts, the percentage is even higher. Most of those convicted will serve about a year in jail or prison, and most will return to jail or prison within a few years of their release. The United States currently has almost 7 million people under some form of criminal supervision and is spending some $50 billion a year to keep criminals locked up and fed—an expenditure that rises almost every year. Only the tiniest fraction of that money goes to stopping the vicious cycle that keeps criminals in the system.
Drug courts, on the other hand, take people out of the system. According to a recent report, Butte County alone (once it makes up certain implementation costs) stands to save $1 million a year for every 100 Drug Court participants it graduates. While Drug Court is more expensive to run than regular court, it saves money in public health and safety, jail beds, probation, law enforcement and other costs related to addiction.
Judge Stevens, who presides over the court, at first seems an unlikely person to have been an early supporter of drug courts. Known throughout county government as a staunch conservative, Stevens said it wasn’t easy to make the switch from being tough on crime to being “smart on crime.” Having been a judge for 12 years, he spent the first four years of his tenure in criminal proceedings, where he developed a reputation as the “just do it” judge for his impatience in dealing with the excuses of both his defendants and his bureaucratic colleagues.
But somewhere along the line, Stevens became convinced that something was wrong with the court system. ‘We kept seeing the same people, over and over again,” he said. ‘It was this revolving door. It wasn’t working.”
Many of the defendants he saw were obviously self-medicating themselves to avoid facing their problems. Stevens developed a nagging feeling that many of the people he sent to prison might have been better served had they been given the tools to deal with the issues that had got them into trouble in the first place.
“Addiction is a horrible disease,” he said. “Just like you cannot deal with diabetes or pneumonia without treatment, you can not deal with addiction without treatment.”
Realizing the need for a different approach, Stevens looked into the ways other court systems had tried to deal with addicts. The first drug courts began to appear in the Miami area in 1989. The experiment spread to California in 1995, when Oakland first began providing treatment for drug-addicted criminals. Studying the flaws and successes of those programs, Stevens sought to discern the fine line between coddling addicts and helping them. His reputation as a tough judge helped him sell the idea to the county.
“We were very skeptical of the process when it first came out,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. ‘When I sent [Deputy District Attorney Helen Harberts] to go check out a drug court in Oregon, it was like, ‘Go check into this and see why we shouldn’t do it.”
When Harberts came back with a positive report, Ramsey decided to take a more objective look.
“You have to have the right judge,” he realized. ‘Having a conservative judge like Darrell Stevens do a seemingly touchy-feely thing like [Drug Court] is like sending Nixon to China. It sounds crazy, but it’s the only thing that’s going to work.”
Ramsey said he is convinced now that, with Judge Stevens presiding, the program is able to make the essential distinction between ‘an addict who does crimes and criminals who use drugs.”
Owing to his reputation, Stevens has become widely known among the growing cadre of drug court professionals. In addition to speaking at numerous conferences on the subject, Stevens chairs both the California Collaborative Courts Panel and the state commission on implementing Proposition 36, a California initiative that mandated treatment for drug offenders over jail time. (See sidebar, above.)
In Steven’s courtroom, the sensation that the program is working is uplifting and infectious. While many professionals burn out under the strain of the system, Stevens’ team seems able to summon that driving type of energy usually reserved for those who see themselves traveling paths of righteousness. Stevens said he never used to smile when he served in criminal court. Now, he practically lights up the courtroom when he addresses his favorite participants.
Taking the bench at a recent Drug Court session, Stevens apologized for being late, joking, “Sorry to keep you waiting. Of all things, I couldn’t find my robe.”
His humor puts the participants at ease and invites them to trust in the process. But when a participant strays from the program, the old “just do it” judge reappears.
“I don’t enjoy sending people to jail, but I will,” he tells a participant who has failed a drug test. “If you screw up just one more time, I honestly don’t know what I will do, but I must maintain the credibility of this program. If that means you have to go to prison, then so be it.”
This carrot-and-stick approach, Stevens said, is what many addicts have been searching for their whole lives. Indeed, many seem to be desperately seeking the kind of structure that Drug Court provides. What makes the process work for addicts, Stevens said, can also make it work for other types of crimes.
“We now apply the Drug Court model to all sorts of criminal cases,” Stevens said, citing the county’s DUI, domestic-violence, mental-health and Proposition 36 courts. “It’s far more intensive and far more difficult for the defendant, but it does work.”
So far, statistics prove Stevens right. While offenders sentenced through traditional criminal courts return to prison after release as much as 85 percent of the time, Drug Court participants who graduate out of the program have only a 13 percent recidivism rate. More than 60 percent of those who enter Drug Court graduate from the program, a process that can take anywhere from 18 months to more than two years.
Helen Harberts, now the lead prosecutor in Drug Court, was not always a believer in the treatment approach. An iconic figure in Butte County government for her stark, no-nonsense approach to law enforcement, Harberts once leaned toward a much more conservative approach to dealing with drug offenders.
“When I first heard what they were doing over here, I came down to check it out. I went back and told [Butte County District Attorney] Mike Ramsey that either these people were lunatics or that they were on to something.”
Harberts, being the county’s top prosecutor for drug crimes, knew all too well the failings of the traditional criminal court and probation models. Years of budget cuts had eaten away at the probation system that might have salvaged many criminals’ lives, and the courts were getting bogged down dealing with repeat offenders. When Harberts first saw the figures on recidivism for drug court participants, she simply refused to believe they could be that low. But after crunching the numbers herself, a light went on.
“I am first and foremost a criminal-justice professional, so I look at recidivism,” she said. “I saw then that if these people aren’t coming back into the system—and in droves they’re not coming back—well, that’s what we as criminal-justice professionals ought to be doing. Our goal should be to put ourselves out of business.”
Harberts now goes even further than Stevens in talking up the program. By her arithmetic, the entire caseload of the county Probation Department could be wiped out within a few years if they were able to find a way to utilize some of the strategies developed in Drug Court.
“This is what science says works. It looks like social work, but it’s a high-accountability model.” She said. “It takes up half the time of standard probation. They’re sent out the door and don’t come back. If those people were put on this model, inside of five years they’d be gone—living lives, getting jobs, being productive members of society.”
One of the reasons Harberts and other team members cite for their program’s success is the cooperation displayed by each member of the team. Instead of treating each other as adversaries, the prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment providers all try to set their differences aside and concentrate on what’s best for the participant. Before each Drug Court session, the entire court team meets in private to review the progress of every participant who will come before the court that day. Sometimes “the fur flies,” as one member of the team noted, but in the end the participants’ behavior determines whether they will be sanctioned or rewarded by the judge.
Participants are also heavily monitored, much more so than those on a regular county probation. If someone in the program fails a urine test—testing on participants is “frequent, random and observed"—the court will know about it. If he or she misses a treatment session, gets a jaywalking ticket or hangs around with the wrong crowd, the court always seems to find out.
“People are always amazed at the things we find out about them,” Stevens said, noting that police, treatment providers, family members and others often call his office to share reports—good and bad—about participants.
Often, if a participant gets a negative report, he or she is sent directly to jail for as many as five days. For many of those participants, the psychological effect is like being doused with cold water.
“I relapsed several times,” said court graduate Athel Smoot. “They had done everything for me but send me to a treatment home. As I was sitting in jail, those whole five days I was just thinking about what I needed to do to get myself better.”
Smoot, now 46, graduated from Drug Court two years ago. A veteran who took up drinking during his service in the Air Force, Smoot developed a speed habit that at times had him smoking and snorting as much as $60 worth of methamphetamine every day. After using on and off for 13 years, Smoot said his prayers for help were answered when he was arrested for possession three years ago.
“I tell people I have just begun to live my life. I used to be a follower. I never made my own decisions. It’s so gratifying now to be able to make my own decisions and to make the right ones.”
The jail time was just the kick in the rear Smoot needed to get through treatment. But what sealed the deal was the praise he received when he did well. When asked why Drug Court works, participants almost universally cite the positive reinforcement that Stevens doles out each time a good report comes in.
“I went back to Drug Court after spending those five days in jail. The pivotal point in my recovery happened when I went before Judge Stevens and he said I had reclaimed my credibility.”
Stevens, who often compares the structure of Drug Court to a family environment, acknowledges the power his words have over court participants and delights in showing them a side of the law they might never have thought existed.
“Here they have an opportunity to be praised and receive recognition for what they do right. Many have never had any praise from authority figures before,” Stevens said. “One of the best incentives for them is to see that person in the black robe smiling at them. If you ask [participants] what the worst thing about Drug Court is, it’s not going to jail but disappointing the [Drug Court] team.”
One of the more unsung heroes of Butte County’s Drug Court is Public Defender Steven Trenholme. A fervent believer in the collaborative-court approach, Trenholme lets his clients know right off the bat that he is there to help them, but if they really want to get better, they’re going to have to help themselves.
“I try to establish a different kind of relationship with clients,” Trenholme said. “I’m not doing the traditional public defender thing here, Helen [Harberts] isn’t doing the traditional D.A. thing here, the judge isn’t doing the traditional judge thing.”
When Trenholme first meets with clients, he lends them a well-worn copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and goes over the 12 steps with them. He tells them that if they succumb to the urge to drink or use drugs, they need to ‘fess up immediately if they want to stay out of jail.
“I tell them, ‘If you lie to me, or you lie to your parole officer, I can’t help you.’ It turns out to be a great defense. If you’re honest and you stay clean, Judge Stevens won’t send you to jail.”
As with the other team members, Trenholme has had to retrain himself to think less like a legal pit bull and more like a court-appointed caregiver. He, like Harberts and Stevens, travels extensively to teach other attorneys how to be part of a drug court team. A quiet man with a calm demeanor, Trenholme turns positively evangelistic when he talks about the enormous potential he sees in collaborative courts.
“Is it a revolution? Absolutely. As more judges begin to understand it and begin to see the potential in it, this model will mushroom and spread to the benefit of society. All you have to do is sit and watch—you can tell the difference right off.”
Trenholme is right on both counts. There are now 1,200-1,400 collaborative courts in the United States. But one need only to visit the far end of the Butte County Courthouse to see the results.
In Courtroom Two, where criminal cases are being tried, the defendants show up in street or jail clothes to stand before a humorless judge who peers down at the accused with a withering glare. Defendants invariably look sick, defiant or confused. Having spent only a few minutes with a public defender, most have only the slightest involvement with their defense. Outside the courtroom, families of the convicted sob and hold each other, knowing that the next time they see their loved one it will be behind reinforced glass at a facility where criminals are basically warehoused with other criminals until the day they are set loose, often with no money, no job prospects, no supervision—worse or at least no better off than when they were sent away.
Next door at Drug Court, the contrast is almost unbelievable. Instead of families broken apart, they are smiling, hugging, being reunited. Bailiffs are helping defendants—tellingly called “participants” in drug court—tie their ties. Everyone is talking about how the court is transforming their lives.
“My life is totally changed,” said Nuki. “It’s really about being conscientious. I’m not as selfish as I used to be. I’m more responsible. I have my family back in my life.”
As Nuki puts it, "I’m not a bad person trying to be good; I’m a sick person trying to get better."