Full Court Press

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, local courts are overrun with an endless stream of drug cases; many districts don't have enough judges to handle them. Even if they did, the jails would probably be full. Some districts have gotten creative, instituting diversion programs that send less serious offenders off to treatment rather than the big house. Hennepin County developed its Fast Track Drug Program more than three years ago; nearly 400 people are diverted every year.

Now head Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke, along with a steering committee that meets once a week, wants to take the process a few steps further. He's hoping to institute changes in the next four months that would insert the court further into minor drug offenders' lives than ever before--in effect making it a surrogate father figure. What he's got in mind includes putting the fast track program on a faster track by cutting back on red tape (like time-consuming analyses of seized drugs when a defendant admits what the substance is) to get people into treatment in days rather than months. "If we have a friend," explains Burke, "and that person is doing drugs or alcohol and we need to get them into treatment, we are going to do an intervention tonight. We would never go to that person and say we care about you, we would like you to go to treatment sometime after the Fourth of July."

Other proposals include using acupuncture to help people get off cocaine and having defendants perform community service as restitution to neighborhoods; "If you have a dirty [urinalysis], you would go out and paint, remove graffiti, fix the park," says Burke. Perhaps the most radical proposal is to use the court to dole out "positive reinforcement," an idea that even Burke admits sounds a little hokey. Groups of defendants would be required to appear in court every couple weeks so a judge could tell them how well they are doing; if they didn't show, he says, they would most likely be arrested.

Single mothers would receive special attention according to the new plan. There would be gift certificates: "Let's say you only had two kids but were pregnant," Burke says. "If the retail merchants who you are stealing from would cough up some certificates for baby clothes, every time you came to court or got a clean screen you would get a certificate for, say, $15 at Dayton's." Burke hasn't tested the waters with local merchants yet. He'd also like to get landlords in the game by convincing them to rent to addicted mothers, thereby allowing the court to move them away from the "temptation" of nearby crack houses. A mom could literally be sentenced by a judge to live in Richfield, for example.

If it seems odd that Burke and the steering committee would single out mothers, he says it's because they are a relatively small population, just the right size for an experiment. "Besides," he says, "unless that mother is a more effective parent, we are going to see the kids in juvenile court or someplace else. The consequences to juveniles of having a poor home environment is significant." But what about single fathers? "First we will deal with the group here. From a theoretical standpoint, we would be hard-pressed not to expand the program to include them. But, first we need to get our village up, then think about expanding it across the road."

And if it seems even odder that the court would take on the role of moral adviser, Burke says, "If we don't do it, who will? We at Hennepin County are at a fork in the road. We have the capability of doing something that is infinitely more effectively than what other systems have done. We as a community would pay a high price if we didn't make it work."

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