A Chemistry Experiment

The Denver Drug Court tests a formula for reclaiming addicts.

"Drug court is not able to meet its mission," says Christie Donner, coordinator of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "The treatment dollars aren't there. Without those dollars, all it is is an expedited court process. We call drug court the slow road to prison."

That may not be a bad thing, say some hard-liners.

"I think cold turkey should be a hell of a good lesson," says Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth. "It's a question of whether we should pamper them or take strong action that lets them know they shouldn't be involved in drugs. I think drug court tends to pamper them."

Local judges are concerned that this special court strains an overworked system. In Denver's Second District Court, seven judges handle criminal cases, including one -- Judge Paul Markson -- who has worked full-time in drug court for the past two years. Typically, judges are rotated every few years into drug court. If any of the justices balk at serving, it could revive a move to scrap the program. Should that happen, Markson says, all twenty district-court judges will have to decide the future of drug court.

"We make those decisions as a group," says Markson, a strong supporter of drug court, who adds that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the attitudes of the other judges toward his court.

However, others have made their feelings known. Denver District Court Chief Judge J. Stephen Phillips contends that many of his colleagues resent the diversion of resources into drug court. "If we didn't have a drug-court judge, we could use that judge to lighten the load on the other judges," says Phillips.

Most Denver judges agree with the idea of diverting drug offenders into treatment programs, but they question the value of having one courtroom solely devoted to drug crimes. Even if drug court is eliminated, Phillips says, district court would try to maintain much of the drug-court system, including regular testing and counseling. But instead of one judge supervising all of the drug cases, they would be split up among the seven district-court judges who handle criminal cases.

"The judges are saying what resources we do have should go into working with people in the therapy process. The discussion is where the emphasis should be," says Phillips, before pronouncing this verdict: "Drug court is destined for restructuring at some point."

At least one local judge also raises a philosophical objection to drug court. In a paper published in the June 2000 issue of the North Carolina Law Review, Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman criticizes the entire premise of drug court, arguing that it is "fundamentally unprincipled."

"By simultaneously treating drug use as a crime and as a disease, without coming to grips with the inherent contradictions of those two approaches, drug courts are not satisfying either the legitimate and compassionate interests of the treatment community or the legitimate and rational interests of the law enforcement community. They are, instead, simply enabling our continued national schizophrenia about drugs," wrote Hoffman.

District Attorney Ritter doesn't disguise his annoyance with criticisms of the court: "I'm not saying drug court is perfect, but it's better than anything else out there. It's certainly better than anything the naysayers on the district court have come up with."

Likewise, Meyer has defended the cause and written a paper arguing that the courts are in a unique position to both encourage treatment and impose sanctions for those who won't give up drugs.

"It is uneconomical, unjust, and inefficient to routinely handle drug offenders through the traditional criminal justice process" wrote Meyer. "Albert Einstein observed: 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' Drug courts were established to find a way to stop doing things the old way, over and over again."

Meyer believes that many of his former colleagues are uncomfortable with the role a judge plays in drug court. "A drug-court judge doesn't do trials; he takes pleas and imposes sanctions and rewards," says Meyer. "Some people believe that's social work."

Denver's drug court has had some success in reducing the rate of second arrests for addicts. According to a study commissioned by the Colorado Judicial Department, 13 percent of drug-court graduates are arrested again within one year versus 17 percent of drug users who go through the regular court system. The study found that drug court tended to be more successful with older drug users. That 4 percent reduction in new arrests, while seemingly small, is important, insists Ritter.

"That's 92 offenders a year not getting sent to the department of corrections at $25,000 per bed," he says. "Having that kind of reduction is significant. Look at the human side of this. That's a significant number of people whose lives have changed."

(Despite the ideological debate, there is some evidence that drug court may actually save money. A study released this summer by the Colorado Judicial Department estimated that the Denver Drug Court, funded primarily by the state, costs $609,634 a year to operate, somewhat less than the $630,708 required to keep a traditional courtroom running. The court also receives some city funding for five full-time positions.)

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