Observations and Reflections from York County’s Drug Treatment Court

by Patrick Gann

Here, I saw a room full of professionals who wanted to best serve the court participants, which sometimes meant making hard choices.

On September 29, 2016, I attended the weekly-scheduled Thursday Drug Treatment Court in York County.  The treatment court was held in its usual place, on the sixth floor of the York County Judicial Center, just north of York’s center square on George Street.  The judge presiding over Drug Treatment Court on the day I visited was the Judge John Kennedy.  Though Judge Kennedy is not the only judge who presides over drug and other treatment courts, one of the probation officers informed me that he is the primary judge for Drug Treatment Court cases.

I made an intentional choice to attend the meeting before court, followed by court itself.  In the pre-meeting, I witnessed case workers, probation officers, Judge Kennedy, and other relevant individuals discuss updates and treatment plans for all of the 30-35 treatment participants scheduled to appear later that morning for court.  This earlier session was not open to the public, but I was allowed to observe as a Social Work student so that I could be familiarized with all of the individuals in the room.

Pre-Court Meeting Reflection

For a full two hours, I witnessed the relevant members of the Drug Treatment Court prepare for court proper, which would begin at half-past ten in the morning.  Here, I saw a room full of professionals who wanted to best serve the court participants, which sometimes meant making hard choices.  That morning, I saw some people recommended for moving forward across the three phases, some recommended for graduation, and some rewarded with incentives; in the same span of time, I also saw them prepare to prematurely discharge some participants for failure to comply or for consistently failing urine tests.  Among the latter, some would be placed in handcuffs.  I was not aware that this would happen until court started.

These “happy check-ins,” as I think of them, were good to see. The accountability provided by the court and the program gave them short-term goals to accomplish and incentives to stay clean.

I was pleased to see the positive rapport developed between case workers, probation officers, and the judge.  They were all striving to maintain congenial attitudes despite the long morning meeting ahead.  Everyone, even the individuals sitting in the observation area with me, had a cup of coffee.  I wished I had thought to get one for myself.  The other individuals in the observation area were generally representatives of service providers that interfaced with the participants: T.W. Ponessa, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation [OVR], and others were my neighbors for the next four hours.

The most poignant moment I witnessed during the pre-court meeting was a surprise moment of passionate sincerity from the otherwise cool-headed judge.  One of the probation officers spoke about a certain participant who was at risk of discharge in the program, and because they had multiple drug-related arrests, that the D.A. might push for time in state prison for this person.  When this statement was made, the judge quickly replied: “Unless our participants are violent offenders, they do not go to state prison!  We do everything in our power to make sure that will not happen!” (emphasis added).  I later learned, through research, that Judge Kennedy helped to establish York County’s Drug Treatment Court program; ours was the second of its kind in Pennsylvania (York County Bar Assoc., 2016).

Reflecting on Court, In-Session

Then there were the problem cases. These were the ones I heard about in great detail during the pre-court meeting time. Early in the proceedings, one of the participants spoke dishonestly about work attendance.

At exactly 10:30 a.m., the double doors to the courtroom burst open as individuals dressed in comfortable clothing entered.  With the exception of two groups, these individuals would be called to speak directly with the judge, one by one, in alphabetical order by last name.  The two exceptional groups were those at the very end and the very beginning.  Two individuals were seen first to be told they had successfully completed the program.  Their graduation date was scheduled, and they received applause from the courtroom staff and their peers as they exited.  Two other individuals, dressed in orange, had arrived through a different door on the side of the room.  They had been in the county jail, and to the county jail they would return.  These two individuals pled their cases to Judge Kennedy, seeking access to the treatment program in lieu of more time in jail.  These two people took a substantial amount of time to process, as case workers were also involved in this process, and after they were done speaking directly with the judge, I watched at least two people – likely a case worker and probation officer – follow the orange-suited individuals out the side door to go over paperwork and discuss the program in further detail.

After those events, I witnessed a series of conversations between Judge Kennedy and the treatment court participants.  Some were entirely positive: the participants found a job, submitted all urine and blood tests in a timely manner and tested clean every time since their last court appearance, claimed they are attending AA or NA daily, and some found a sponsor or have been regularly connecting with their already-established sponsor.  These “happy check-ins,” as I think of them, were good to see.  The accountability provided by the court and the program gave them short-term goals to accomplish and incentives to stay clean.

I had seen so much. Peoples’ fates were, in a sense, in the judge’s hands. But, given that this program is a kind of second chance, these individuals held their fates in their own hands.

Then there were the problem cases.  These were the ones I heard about in great detail during the pre-court meeting time.  Early in the proceedings, one of the participants spoke dishonestly about work attendance.  The team had already established, with documentation, that the participant had missed work without excuse or explanation for the past three days, but this same participant looked the judge in the eyes and said he had been attending work without any interruption.  Judge Kennedy made a statement that seemed cryptic to me, but it was apparently one that all the participants knew well.  It sounded like a Biblical proverb, something about wisdom and foolishness and lying.  Then Judge Kennedy read back, verbatim, the case notes regarding this participant’s absence from work.  In a word, the guy was busted.  This alone could have been grounds to dismiss him from the program, and he knew it.  The swagger in his voice disappeared and he began to earnestly plead for a second chance, offering up an excuse about missing work that had nothing to do with using drugs.  No conclusions were made there in public, but when he was sent away, I once again witnessed two more officials follow the participants out the door, paperwork in hand.  There was talk about possibly having to write an honesty essay.

After that episode, anyone else who was delinquent in any aspect of the program was honest; some even opened with statements as to how they had failed to follow through before the judge could even ask about it.  There were complicated matters, too: urine samples can be diluted by drinking excess water, so anyone who over-hydrates can be accused of attempting to trick the system.  Two people had this problem with their samples, one as a one-off fluke, the other consistently with every test over the past two weeks.  I did not previously know that tests could be this complicated.

Once court was over, I had to collect myself.  I had seen so much.  Peoples’ fates were, in a sense, in the judge’s hands.  But, given that this program is a kind of second chance, these individuals held their fates in their own hands.  What more can society give in terms of tools, support, and accountability, and keep them out of jail at the same time?  I was impressed, and I was thankful to see how many people seemed to be succeeding thanks to their compliance with the program.

While I do not think working as a case worker in drug treatment court is in my near future, it is something I believe every student in social work should see, not just those who happen to enroll for an elective in Addictions.

Drug Treatment Court, by the Numbers

I remain shocked by my ignorance as to the nature of these treatment court programs.  Here I am, in the second year of a master’s program in Social Work, having lived in this one county for most of my 32 years of life, and I had not once heard of this program.  Knowledge of its existence increased my hope and faith in “the system” – seeing a compassionate judge try to help people goes against the typical media representation of judges.

The studies bear out my hope in the program.  According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals [NADCP], participants in drug treatment courts only have a 25% recidivism rate after two years (2016).  Furthermore, a meta-analysis referenced by the NADCP suggests that drug treatment courts are the single most effective method to reduce crime, with up to 45% crime reduction compared to any other sentencing option.

Not only that: drug courts are far less expensive than placing someone in a jail or prison, ranging anywhere from 15% to 30% of the cost of a traditional sentencing such as time in county jail.  Finally, the NADCP promotes its Family Drug Court program alongside the base program, as this auxiliary program increases family reunification by a rate of 50% (2016).

Conclusion

While I do not think working as a case worker in drug treatment court is in my near future, it is something I believe every student in social work should see, not just those who happen to enroll for an elective in Addictions.  Furthermore, considering I only learned of the program this year, I wonder if the general public is aware of these programs, or if only those with loved ones arrested for drug possession tend to know about it?  If the latter, I think it would be worth better advertising and marketing these programs to the general public, especially for counties that may not offer such a program.  The cost-saving incentive alone should be enough to win over the most hardened skeptic.  Cost aside, for me as a social worker, my professional ethical values align almost perfectly with drug treatment courts.  I am fully in favor.


References

National Association of Drug Court Professionals. (2016). Drug courts work. Retrieved from http://www.nadcp.org/learn/facts-and-figures on October 2, 2016

York County Bar Association. (2016). Bench bar presenter bios. Retrieved from http://www.yorkbar.com/?page=BB143 on October 1, 2016


Patrick S. Gann is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program.