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Nashville Scene Court of Last Resort

How one judge is reaching out to Nashville's drug addicts

By Matt Pulle

JUNE 19, 2000:  It's a muggy Tuesday evening, and Judge Seth Norman sits attentively behind a battered desk in his makeshift courtroom inside an abandoned mental hospital. From the rear door enters a group of casually dressed young men. They stand in an orderly line before the stern, white-haired judge in the black robe. All have struggled mightily with drugs or booze, and most have spent time in jail.

On this particular evening, however, they're behaving more like summer camp counselors. Everyone is happily talking, and some are even joking with the judge. He laughs and responds with quick retorts for each of them. It's an odd sight--troubled youths, most of them black, and an aging, white judge behaving so comfortably around each other. They respect Norman all right, but he's not some distant authority figure. The judge has become their friend.

Welcome to the Davidson County Drug Court, a 3-year-old residential and outpatient program run for now at the old Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute building off Murfreesboro Road. Much like a number of cities nationwide, Nashville is revamping how it handles drug-related crime. Whereas once, nonviolent felony offenders faced stints in prison where their problems with drugs would often go unchecked, they can now enroll in a specialized court program designed to address their needs. Drug addicts meet with counselors, do volunteer work, and live in a tightly monitored residential community. The goal isn't just to keep participants clean but to get them off the street and into the workforce.

Although early statistics are promising, it may be too early to tell whether this approach really works in the long term. Critics contend that drug courts (which aren't really courts at all but individualized probation programs) are merely fluffy by-products of America's therapeutic culture--a culture that they think overemphasizes trendy counseling sessions in place of strong, bricks-and-mortar punishment.

But these critics seem to be losing the debate. Six years ago, there were only 12 drug courts or related programs in the country. Today, there are nearly 600. And this week, as a hallmark of its own growth and stature, the Davidson County Drug Court is moving its operations to a new $3 million building in Bordeaux with the goal of expanding the reach of the program.

On this Tuesday evening, like others before it, Judge Norman is here to review the progress of the men and women he has sentenced to drug court. The judge reads the names of the residents, reviews progress reports on their behavior, and gives them kind and well-received words of encouragement. It's been a good week. Nobody really got into trouble, and the judge makes it clear how proud of everyone he is. About this particular session, he later says, "It's more like a pep rally than a drug court."

Tonight, the program has two graduates, including 28-year-old Steven Batts. Wearing yellow shorts and shirt and grinning widely, he speaks to the residents: "I have never completed anything in my life. If it weren't for this program I wouldn't have this smile on my face. I feel love in this room. When I was on the street, I didn't feel that love."

Before he entered drug court, Batts had been on drugs for nearly 10 straight years, committing an assortment of crimes along the way. "I had been to jail before, and whenever I got out, I was back on the street doing the same thing," says Batts, who attended McGavock High School in the '80s. Now he proudly notes that he has been clean for two years, is recently married, and has a job working as an assistant manager at a McDonald's restaurant.

"This is the most important day of my life," says Batts, still beaming 20 minutes after his graduation. "I always told myself I was a failure and I wouldn't amount to anything. I had no pride and no self-dignity. I didn't care about anything. I used people for my own personal gain. This program taught me how to be myself, how to be a man. And it's the best thing to ever happen to me."

A judge since 1990, Norman became frustrated with the virtual parade of drug-related offenders defiantly marching past him in his criminal court. Repeat offenders especially aggravated him. "I got tired of seeing the same faces keep on coming before me," he says.

And so in late 1995, Norman looked into establishing a drug court in Davidson County. At that time, the concept had roots but wasn't well established. In 1989, now-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno--who was then the top prosecutor in Miami's Dade County--organized the first such program in response to rapidly increasing recidivism rates. In her program, judges implemented and oversaw intensive, community-based treatment and rehabilitation programs for felony drug offenders. More than 10 years and 200,000 participants later, Reno's vision is basically intact.

It took Norman 18 months to navigate through the various federal bureaucracies before obtaining grant money to launch his program. In the beginning, the drug court consisted of only six residents who were responsible for the maintenance of the building they lived in. Since then, more than 300 people have participated.

Because of its cramped facility, the Davidson County Drug Court has had a rather limited scope. Only 75 people have graduated, while 120 have entered but failed to complete the program. There are another 100 or so people who are currently participating.

But while the Davidson County Drug Court--whose nearly $1 million budget is funded almost entirely by federal grants--may still be a work in progress, its potential is impressive. The program is less expensive than jail, and so far, it can claim very low recidivism rates. Only seven of those who have graduated have been arrested again.

The program is limited to offenders with drug problems who have committed nonviolent crimes. They need permission from the district attorney's office. Then they're screened by experts who determine the extent of their drug problem and decide whether the program can help them. Finally, Norman himself has to sign off on each candidate.

Participants avoid jail time. And in theory, they can complete the program within a year. But the rules are tough, and if they slip once, the judge may order them to start the program all over again. A few years ago, one male resident was caught fraternizing with a female resident after a Christmas party. For that violation of the drug court's rules, the judge threw them both in jail.

Nationwide, critics of drug courts have argued that they violate the fundamental legal principle of equality before the law. After all, those with drug problems are treated differently--and some would say better--than criminals who don't do drugs.

"Is the purpose of the courts to meet the individual needs of the defendants?" asks writer Eric Cohen rhetorically in The Weekly Standard, a neo-conservative magazine. "Are justice and therapy one and the same thing?"

The philosophy of the Davidson County Drug Court is that a criminal's drug addiction is not some extraneous habit but a serious medical condition that can and should be treated.

"There's a lot of debate about whether or not alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases," says Valerie Handy, the drug court's residential clinical coordinator. "I believe that they are. They're diseases just like cancer, glaucoma, or anything else."

Norman himself is a recovering alcoholic who battled a drinking problem for five long years before seeking help in 1988. Although he doesn't like to talk at length about what he went through, it's clear that his bout with alcoholism influenced his decision to start the drug court. "I understand addiction more than others," he says "I have more compassion."

And the participants of the program seem to genuinely look up to the judge. He was there preparing a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and one Christmas morning, he was at the drug court cooking breakfast for the residents. "They're sort of like my grandchildren," he says. "And I don't want to see them again on my crowded docket."

The Davidson County Drug Court has two components--residential and outpatient. In the residential portion, participants undergo intensive drug-treatment courses. These may include individual talks, individual and family counseling, and written assignments. The participants are expected to keep a journal and formulate a plan detailing their own recovery. Lest anyone think all they do is reflect, participants also help with the maintenance of the building and perform two to three rigorous hours of community service a day.

During the drug court's first phase, nearly all participants reside on the premises. For the last three years, they've lived on the remote and aging grounds of the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute, a run-down facility built in the 1940s that will soon be demolished to make room for Dell's new Nashville headquarters.

The drug court's accommodations aren't exactly luxurious. One room, only slightly larger than a two-car garage, contains nine beds. The kitchen, while spotless, is small and dark, and the tables and their attached benches have deep, gaping cracks around the edges. The residents are not allowed to watch most TV programs, and while they do have a basketball court outside, it has only one basket, with a noticeably bent rim and no net. The only basketball in view is too flat to bounce.

This week, the drug court will begin moving into its new 38,000-square-foot facility in northwest Davidson County. The new building will contain more office space, a big recreation room, and a plush green courtyard. But the living spaces will again be cramped, and residents won't exactly love their new accommodations. The judge seems to like it that way.

"There are a lot of people who are suspicious of the idea of a drug court. But I tell people, 'If you think this is a soft deal come out here and see what it's like,' " he says. "The food is terrible, and the accommodations are spartan to say the least."

And yet residents don't seem to mind. Despite housing drug addicts, alcoholics, and crafty criminals, the residential program seems to have less disciplinary problems than the average college dormitory.

Darryle Rucker, the program's residential coordinator, says he can't remember breaking up a single fight. "One thing they know is that violence or any threat of violence will not be tolerated." he says. "Otherwise, they'll have to go before the judge."

But it's not just the fear factor that keeps residents in line. According to Rucker, the strict regimentation of the program can, oddly enough, have a calming effect. "They've got rules they have to follow," he says. "And a lot of them haven't had this kind of structure before. Some of them actually enjoy it."

Danny Melton, a recent graduate of the program, agrees. "This program made me make appointments and keep appointments," says Melton, who had battled alcoholism and drug addiction before entering the program two-and-a-half years ago. "It gave me the kind of structure that I wasn't getting from just going to A.A. meetings."

If they make it through the residential phase, participants then move on to the outpatient portion. In this phase, they typically move out of the premises and into either a halfway house or the home of a friend or family member. In the outpatient phase, participants are required to hold a job, and if they have trouble finding one, there's a person employed by drug court who will help them.

During the outpatient phase, participants still must take drug tests three times a week, and they have to continue to go to counseling. Since they're still basically wards of the state, their income is tightly controlled. One third of what they earn goes for room and board, another third goes to court costs, and the rest goes to start their own savings accounts. After the completion of the outpatient phase, participants may face additional probation time. But if they've followed the rules of the court, they're well on their way toward graduation.

Surprisingly, positive drugs tests are relatively rare during the outpatient phase. In the 1999 fiscal year, there were only 170 positive drug tests out of 5,215 given, a rate of 3 percent. This past fiscal year, thanks in part to a tighter screening process on the front end, there were only three positive drug tests out of 1,087.

It's not just a drug and alcohol problem," says Bill Gupton, the drug court's program manager, about the participants he monitors. "These people have a living problem. They can't follow social norms."

In order to help change that, the drug court tries to instill simple elements of self-governance and camaraderie. Mornings at 9, residents hold a community meeting that they themselves run. At this particular meeting, there are 14 men, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, dressed mainly in faded jeans and old, cheap T-shirts. Surprisingly, no one looks sullen or defiant. Instead, they start by singing "Old McDonald Had a Farm," apparently as an ice-breaker. They can't sing worth a lick, but they're all happily engaged and seemingly oblivious to the oddity of what they're doing.

It's a quirky kind of meeting. One resident stands and provides a detailed weather forecast for that day. Someone else, without provocation, shares with the group how good it feels to be clean and sober. One younger man politely admonishes his peers to make sure they tidy up after themselves after lunch. Another resident, perhaps the oldest one in the group, stands up and confesses to having an anger problem. He asks his peers to watch out for him.

Every resident who talks introduces himself. The group then greets him loudly by his name. Even if that same resident speaks again just minutes later, he'll still introduce himself and be heartily welcomed all over again by the group. This is just one of many ways the program tries to reshape a person's identity.

Overall, the community meetings are meant to be light, happy affairs launching another day of sobriety. Counselors let residents run the program to give them a feeling of responsibility and maturity. For perhaps the first time in their lives, they are making rules, not breaking them.

After the community meetings are smaller group meetings. These are typically more intense. "They are very private, very emotional. We talk about individual issues, and what led them to a life of crime," says the drug court's Valerie Handy. "We have people coming from dysfunctional families, people who have gone through physical and sexual abuse. A lot comes out in these group meetings."

But to Handy, these meetings--along with private, one-on-one sessions--are the key to any addict's recovery. "There's a law of gravity that says, 'What goes up must come down.' There's also a law of Valerie that says, 'What is kept inside must come out,' " she says. "There are folks who tell me they'd rather be in jail. That's how hard it is to deal with all these repressed feelings."

Jacquez Harden, a current participant in the program, says that at first the regimentation and the rather probing group meetings were difficult for him. "It was hell. It was the exact opposite of everything I had ever done," says Harden, a Hunter's Lane High School dropout who committed five aggravated burglaries and was nabbed for cocaine possession all before the age of 20. "But I have no fears right now. I have a great support system, the counselors and the residents."

Drug addicts, especially younger ones like Harden, often require a thorough personality and character change in order to get better. Addiction, deconstructed, is a form of recklessness, and sometimes the way for counselors to combat that is to cultivate a safe, almost dependent personality. The success of that approach--and again there are many skeptics out there--will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the still fledgling Davidson County program.

Harden is young, and despite his unassuming optimism and unfailing modesty, no one can predict whether he'll embark on a new life after he graduates from the program. In fact, one employee of the drug court estimates that if we were to follow 10 randomly chosen current participants for five years, only half of them would stay clean and out of trouble. That's certainly a higher rate of success than prisons have produced, but it nevertheless illustrates the difficulties of reforming the deeply rooted behavior of criminals and drug addicts.

Aside from its professional and dedicated staff, the best thing the Davidson County Drug Court has going for it may be its mix of intensive therapy and old-fashioned discipline. Even if you doubt the efficacy of counseling, the program is tough when it needs to be.

Take Howard Patterson, a recent graduate of the program. In 1996, a police officer spotted Patterson driving late at night with one of his taillights out. The officer pulled him over and found an ounce of cocaine in the car. Ironically, Patterson had just beaten a similar charge because of a technicality.

Now back in front of Judge Norman's court, Patterson figured he'd give this new drug court a try. Initially, he was trying to exploit the apparent leniency of the program, only to discover that it could actually help him go straight.

"When I first got here I figured this was a way to avoid eight years in jail," Patterson says. "I thought I could go into this program and just go through the motions. But the longer I stayed here, the humbler I got."

Patterson talks favorably about the program's counseling and how it's something that he still voluntarily receives nearly every day. "They show you things you've done to humiliate yourself, your friends, and your family," he says.

But as much as Patterson talks about the one-on-one meetings and how important it is to come to terms with your addiction, it was actually a stern showing of tough love that might have helped save him. Nearly two years after he entered drug court, Patterson had a relapse. That month, he went before Norman, who clearly was frustrated. "He asked me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life," Patterson recalls. "He told me to take some time out and think about it."

Patterson thought he could return to his home and quietly contemplate his future. But he wouldn't get off that easily. Norman sent him back to jail for two months. Then, that April, he placed Patterson on an intensive program of outpatient care. The terms were strict. Patterson would have to take three drug tests a week, meet with a counselor twice a week, work a full-time job, and be in his home between the hours of 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Patterson has been clean for two years and now works as a hall monitor and supervisor for the drug court. At long last, he appears to be wresting control of a life that once held so much promise. A former linebacker for the University of Tennessee football team, Patterson went to work as a manager for J.C. Bradford & Co. after college. But he quickly blew it all. He squandered money on drugs, married and divorced four times, and jumped aimlessly from job to job.

"I can go into a phone book and find partners at J.C. Bradford who used to work for me," Patterson says. "I almost destroyed my life because of alcohol and drugs."

No one can say whether he will remain dedicated to sobriety, least of all Patterson himself. But the Davidson County Drug Court gave him a fighting chance. And that may be all anyone can ask for. "This program has saved a lot of people's lives," he says. "A 30-day program wouldn't have done a thing for me. It takes people a long time to realize who they are, what they've done, and what they want out of life."

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