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Remembering the Drug Court Revolution

Stories from the 25th anniversary celebration of the nation’s first drug court.
(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

“In the late 1980s, the war on drugs was in full swing,” said Justice Policy Institute Director Tim Murray, speaking before an audience in a Miami courthouse on a recent Friday morning. “It was in any ways a violent war. It was a war supported by the business community here, and nationally; it was a war supported by the media here, and nationally; and it was a war that we felt, as a community, we had to fight. But it was a war that a few people in this town refused to pretend we were winning.”

Those few people, including Murray, and a forward-thinking judge named Herbert Klein, and several other believers, were the architects of the nation’s first drug court, in Miami-Dade County. Murray was speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration of that first drug court, an undeniably successful method of alternative justice that has since spread across the country and the world. Under the drug court model, first-time non-violent offenders who are arrested for crimes stemming from their substance abuse are given the opportunity for a strict program of treatment and supervision in lieu of jail time. Studies consistently show that it works, and the numbers don’t lie: 75 percent of people who graduate from a drug court program are never arrested again, and counties save $27 for every $1 they invest in drug courts.

When it launched in 1989, though, the drug court concept was nothing short of revolutionary. During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the justice system was absolutely flooded with new offenders, Murray remembered. The prevailing attitude toward drug addiction was that the justice system could, and should, punish addiction out of people. But without providing treatment, courts were just revolving doors for addicts. The judges and lawyers in Miami knew that something had to change, but they had no alternative process elsewhere to point to, and no funding at all to experiment with.

At the time, across the country, local courts were trying to dream up better, faster ways to get offenders in and out of the system as quickly as possible. So it was rather radical for Judge Klein and his colleagues to propose a program that would take a year for each client to complete. Defense attorneys and prosecutors, accustomed to working in opposition to each other, to either lock up or dismiss offenders, would now work as a team—together, they would keep people in the program, treat their addictions, and then, ideally, dismiss their cases.

"It all seems like a million years ago, and it seems like yesterday, that we launched this crazy idea where we would treat individuals as individuals; we would not treat them as a class."

As new and strange as the drug court model may have seemed at the time, it was common knowledge—though the knowledge had not yet translated to common policy—that the status quo wasn’t working. Another speaker at the anniversary celebration was retired General Barry McCaffrey, who previously worked for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He told a story about visiting a Boston police department in the mid-'90s and talking to the beat cops about drugs on the streets. The cops he talked to were angry, and disgusted, and feeling hopeless.

“If you want to understand drug addiction, go ask a municipal court judge, a local prosecutor, a hospital emergency room doctor, or any law enforcement professional,” McCaffrey said. “They understand only too well, that if you’re arresting people 20, 30, 40 times a year, and they’ve been locked up for three days, or seven days, and you turn them back out into the street with no access to treatment, for God’s sakes they’re back out using drugs within 12 hours. It simply doesn’t work. But if you combine drug court, with treatment, with enforcement, then you’ve got a powerful tool.”

Miami-Dade County took a chance on the drug court experiment, raising traffic and parking fines to pay for it. The first drug court designers couldn’t get treatment centers interested in the idea, Murray remembers, “so Dade County set up a double-wide trailer in an empty lot, and that was our treatment center.” State and federal funding would materialize, but only much later, after the program was able to demonstrate success.

“It all seems like a million years ago, and it seems like yesterday, that we launched this crazy idea where we would treat individuals as individuals; we would not treat them as a class,” Murray said. “We would understand that some participants would get through the program relatively easily, while others would fail, repeatedly. That we would put forth a program that wouldn’t stand as a dare for individuals to fail, but that would do everything possible to help them succeed.”

Gradually, the drug court movement grew. A little bit of national press (thanks to an ABC camera crew visiting on an otherwise slow news day) brought the idea to the attention of other judges and prosecutors across the country, who visited Miami to see how it was done. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno sent some of her staff down to investigate, too, and soon the federal government was pitching in with money and support.

The idea spread to counties that were initially resistant, and the risk-taking drug-court organizers there required persistence and patience. West Huddleston, who is now CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), told the story of when he was hired by the prosecutor in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to establish the state’s first drug court there in 1995.

“As you can imagine, alternatives to incarceration were not exactly en vogue in Oklahoma in 1995,” Huddleston recalled. At the time, Oklahoma ranked number one per capita in the country for incarcerating men, and number two for women. “I stood before a Lion’s club lunch meeting in Stillwater and started talking about alternative sentencing and drug courts, and literally someone threw a roll at my head and told me to get off the stage, which I did.”

But he and his colleagues prevailed. Oklahoma now boasts 75 drug courts throughout the state. Texas, another seemingly unlikely convert, has invested in over 150 new drug courts since 2007 in lieu of building new prisons, Huddleston said. And in that time, Texas has, not coincidentally, seen a 39 percent decline in parole revocations, and actually closed three adult prisons and six juvenile detention centers. Nationwide, there are now over 2,800 drug courts in operation, and there are (at least) 23 more outside the U.S. as well.

The most affecting parts of the anniversary celebration were when drug court graduates spoke and expressed their gratitude for the program. One recent graduate tearfully thanked his family and the judge he worked with, and said that he had plans to start training to be a drug abuse counselor himself. David Markus, who is a defense attorney in a drug court today, also graduated from Miami’s drug court in 1994. Markus and the county prosecutor have worked together to develop a protocol specifically for veterans who have become addicted as a result of PTSD after their military service. He remembered his own experiences as a drug addict, at a time when he felt he was living a double life.

“When I was arrested I breathed a sigh of relief, because I knew the lie was over,” said Markus, who has been sober for 20 years now. “Drug court, with its team-based, therapeutic approach, guided by the empathetic but firm hand of a caring judge, gave me what all addicts need to recover: hope, dignity, and more than everything else, a second chance.”

The judges who rule over the drug court seem to have known the power of this combination from the beginning. McCaffrey described Miami drug court’s first presiding judge, Stanley Goldstein, whom he said he didn’t expect to be as compassionate and caring as he proved to be. Judge Goldstein happened to be a retired military police command sergeant major, “a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, experienced law enforcement guy, a lawyer, and a judge,” as McCaffrey put it. But when given the chance to work with these addicts who were at the low point of their lives, Goldstein would step down off the bench and give hugs for making the right choices just as quickly as he would throw them in jail for making the wrong ones.

“You know, for a lot of people who appear in front of my court, this is the first time in their life they’ve dealt with someone who has two attributes at the same time: one is authority ... and the other is somebody who loves them,” McCaffrey remembered Goldstein saying during his tenure. He also recalled Goldstein saying, “This is the way American jurisprudence was supposed to work: officers of the court, with a common sense of commitment to justice and rehabilitation.”

For all of the visible signs of the drug court system’s impact, West Huddleston added at the end of his talk that it was important to acknowledge those invisible effects as well. Twenty-five years ago, the first drug court kicked off a movement that rippled across the state of Florida, across the U.S., and to other countries as well. An estimated 1.3 million people have been treated in the drug court system in the U.S. alone over the past 25 years. It’s boggling to think about what life would be like for all of those people, and their families, and all of the people surrounding them in their lives, if the purely-punitive attitude of the 1980s-era criminal justice system had prevailed.

“How many drug-free babies have been born because of this one drug court?” Huddleston asked. “How many victims of car crashes, assaults, thefts, and other crimes, has this drug court prevented? How many suicides and overdoses have been averted, how many families have been put back together? Now ask that question to the 2,840 drug courts in operation across this country, and now think of the next 25 years, and all the humanity this drug court and the thousands it has inspired has yet to touch. It’s worth pausing a moment. Drug court is a life-saving miracle, there’s no doubt about that."