Addicted To Drug Court

The Good News and the Bad News: Hennepin Countyís drug court has cleared court dockets and steered a lot of people toward treatment. Itís also allowed the county to push thousands more casual offenders into the corrections system.

The weekend of May 11 was warm and mild, making the following Monday more hectic than usual in Judge William Howard's courtroom. As the afternoon session opens, the judge has nearly four dozen cases to dispose of, and theoretically just three hours in which to do it.

A bailiff opens the glassed-in booth where people brought up from the jail wait and lets out an Ethiopian man who, it quickly becomes apparent, only speaks Oromo. There's no translator in the building, so the guy's brother, who came to get him, is pressed into service. "You are charged with possession of khat," the judge says, slowly. "The police searched your house and they found it. This is the beginning of the process to find out whether you have violated the law. The police say you have." Howard asks the man's brother to tell him that he may be sent to a class where he will learn that "khat is not okay for the United States," and gives him a date to come back. Six friends trail him out of the courtroom.

The next man out of the holding area is charged with possessing .8 grams of coke. He's dressed in a filthy T-shirt and rotting sweat pants, but has the whitest tennis shoes imaginable. He's sent upstairs to undergo a chemical dependency assessment administered by county public-health workers.

Then there's a man arrested for possessing 1.4 grams of coke. He has another unresolved drug case, and therefore an attorney, but no one can figure out when his lawyer will be here. The defense attorneys keep a group calendar on their table, but someone spilled coffee on it. Howard orders bail, which the defendant can't pay. He storms back into the holding area and starts shouting and smashing things. After unloading their guns, three bailiffs follow him.

A man shoots out of the in-custody booth and walks past the crowd and toward the double doors at the front of the courtroom like some kind of quick-stepping zombie. A bailiff tries to direct him back toward the podium, but he turns instead toward the jury room on the other side of the court. His hair is fashioned into four rows of little spikes, which gives all of his bobbing and weaving a comical air and people are cracking up. At the podium he can't get his hand to connect with the mic.

Eventually the sight of Howard brings him back to Earth. "How you doin'?" he asks the judge.

The probation officer holding the man's file notes that his mother has called and won't let him come home; his parents called the police because he was threatening his father with a stun gun. When the officers found him he was carrying 3.2 grams of crack. Howard asks for evaluations of his mental health and medication regime--"I think we just witnessed some behavior"--and sets bail at $3,000.

Welcome to the vanguard of Minnesota jurisprudence, Hennepin County District Court's much-touted drug court: two courtrooms, three judges, and a small roster of lawyers and probation officers who do nothing but deal with drug offenders. They handle more than a fourth of all felonies filed in Hennepin County. To their proponents, the harried people who work in this room are on the cutting edge of something called therapeutic jurisprudence. To detractors, they are helping increase the number of people caught up in an ill-conceived war on drugs.

Drug court judges are supposed to rule their courtrooms with iron fists in velvet gloves. Offenders check in often and undergo frequent urinalysis. Missteps bring swift consequences, including lectures, "flash" incarceration, and longer and longer jail stays. "Graduates" get a round of applause.

Drug court's chief judge, Howard bears a striking resemblance to the late Dave Thomas. He rockets from empathy to irritation. One or the other of his arms is usually flung over a shoulder or his head, and the momentum from their swinging seems to propel him around his raised seating area. Sometimes he's flung back in his chair, sometimes he looms far over the bench, as if looking for something he dropped on the floor.

Probably half the people appearing before him this afternoon were arrested on bench warrants, meaning they missed a court appearance or otherwise failed to comply with their sentences. An impressive number swear they missed because of a funeral. A cousin in Indiana, a brother here in town, a roommate, a mother-in-law: At one point, Howard quips to one of the public defenders that she must be putting hexes on her clients.

One woman didn't show because she was in a battered women's program and was scared that her boyfriend would pop up at her court appearance. After Howard grants her bail, she makes a beeline for a guy in the audience. They leave holding hands.

As the afternoon goes on, the pace becomes frenetic. Howard quickly hears two more cases involving repeat offenders, and then that of a crack dealer arrested on a bench warrant after skipping out of treatment. He's been to treatment 28 times in the last 14 years, probation reports; their latest recommendation is that he find a self-help group instead. The man's lawyer protests that the treatment program the man just walked away from is willing to take him back.

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