The drug court judge peppered the addict with questions.
“So who’s the friend you thought you could trust?” she asked him abruptly. Her stare was met by his downcast eyes.
He had been accepted to drug court after a string of DUIs, but then his urine test came back positive for alcohol. Like everyone in Drug Treatment Court, he’s an addict, working to stay clean, and the judge was trying to figure out why he wasn’t.
As the wall clock ticked in Courtroom 313 of the Monroe County Justice Building, she
Ten seconds passed.
“Who was it?” she tried again, leaning against the table of probation officers behind her. The judge had traded her throne-like bench for a lectern and stood on the courtroom floor closer to her defendants.
Barely five feet tall, she wears no robe and wields no gavel, but has no trouble commanding the room’s respect.
“Decide who your friends are,” she coaxed.
To her right, the rest of the addicts sat silently in the gallery, watching the judge use the same piercing glare many of them had felt before.
“It’s your life, not theirs.”
The addict stared at his feet.
“Who is it?” she said.
Sixty five seconds.
Finally, he raised his head, looked into the gallery and gestured toward another drug court participant.
“Well,” she said quietly, “this is fun.”
Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff doesn’t care that skeptics call drug treatment court the “hug a thug program,” because it works.
At a time when politicians are debating strategy for the war on drugs, activists are advocating for decriminalization and prisons are overflowing with repeat offenders, presiding Judge Diekhoff and the drug court staff are offering an alternative they know works — with the results to prove it.
Since 1999, 275 local participants have completed the program with a graduation rate of 61 percent, eclipsing the national average by nine percentage points. When it comes to the county’s pocketbook, drug court has saved Monroe County taxpayers almost $2 million in 15 years.
But for some, the numbers aren’t enough. Inside the Justice Building, there is some resistance from defense attorneys and prosecutors alike — drug court is either too hard or not hard enough, they say. It makes the county look “soft on crime.”
“Truthfully, for most of our people, they would find it much easier to go to jail or sit in prison because what do you have to do?” the judge says. “Nothing.”
Behind bars, there are few decisions to make or responsibilities to fulfill. Schedules are predetermined, meals are provided.
“As long as you behave yourself you ain’t gonna have a problem,” the judge says. “Uh-uh. That’s not this.”
Under her watch, drug treatment court is hard work. At the change of plea hearing where accepted defendants waive their constitutional rights and plea guilty to their crimes, the judge lays out the expectations for drug court participants nationwide — 10 p.m. curfew, daily check-ins at the Community Corrections Building, weekly court attendance, no weapon possession, timely payment of monthly fees and urine screenings at least three times a week. No drugs, no alcohol, no bars.
“Nicks is a bar. Kilroys is a bar,” she says. “If you go to Olive Garden, you can’t sit at the bar.”
On top of that, the judge tells her people they must have a job or be in school while in drug court.
“Our goal is to just keep putting up roadblocks so that they just have to keep changing directions,” the judge says, “and the one direction we want them to go to is to be sober.”
If they complete the two-year program successfully, their criminal record is wiped clean
The young ones are hardest to get clean. It’s usually a parent or lawyer forcing them to participate in drug court. But they don’t want to stop partying or change their friend group. They haven’t hit rock bottom yet.
“They don’t get it,” the judge says. “They don’t understand they’re going to die.”
In seven years as the presiding judge, she’s seen how drug court saves lives — alcoholics sober for the first time in decades, women giving birth to drug free babies, mended marriages and newfound parental trust. She’s seen addiction’s ugly side, too, watched it break up families, end careers and empty bank accounts. Nicotine addiction gave her own mother cancer.
In her courtroom, everyone is an addict and all addicts are equal. Education level doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. Addiction ravages the wealthy the same as it afflicts the poor.
The addicts in drug court are people with a long history of criminal behavior driven by their disease. They are people with exhausted parents, spouses and children. People with problems that need treatment, not just punished. “My drug people,” she calls them.
In court, she’s like a human lie detector, daring anyone to cross her. When it’s earned, she praises. When it’s necessary, she shouts.
“When I get frustrated, I can make thunder and lightning happen,” she’ll often remind her drug court people. “But I don’t.”
When she’s not “your honor,” she’s mom to a college-aged daughter and wife to Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff. Framed photos of them rest on her desk, beside Mickey Mouse figurines dressed like Darth Vader and R2-D2 and above a handful of sticky notes taped down that say, “I love you!”
Since she took over drug court, the judge hasn’t had a vacation that wasn’t interrupted by drug court. She doesn’t even go most weekends without getting a phone call from drug court Director Steve Malone. The judge wants it that way, though.
“This is not a job that you turn off,” she says. “This involves dealing with people’s lives. It’s a responsibility that I really feel heavily.”
She and her staff are trying to reshape American assumptions about crime and punishment, to alter the idea that when it comes to drug offenders and addiction, justice can’t always mean an eye for an eye.
“Come to court,” she says. “You just have to see it.”
Back in courtroom 313, the judge’s wrath came down on the addict in orange and the friend he pointed out, a 20-year-old alcoholic himself.
After 20 minutes of questioning, the judge had connected the dots.
Both men had been accepted to drug court after alcohol related offenses, which means they are free to live their lives as long as they follow drug court rules. But they didn’t.
The 20-year-old alcoholic took the addict in orange to a gas station. He watched him buy a beer and watched him drink it. Next, they went to a party with more alcohol, where the 20-year-old let his friend drink again. He told him to stop, but didn’t call the drug court field officer or the case manager, like participants are supposed to if they see a peer in trouble. Then he let him drive home.
The judge was disappointed in the addict in orange for drinking, but she seemed furious with the 20-year-old in the gallery.
“What is the purpose of this court?” the judge yelled, raising her voice and leaning toward him.
To get sober, he said.
“What else?” she demanded.
To work the program, he responded.
“What else?” she asked, still not getting the answer she wanted.
“This is the fundamental point of this court you are missing,” the judge shouted, enunciating each word. “It is to support each other.”
As punishment for his dishonesty and for violating the rules, the judge sent the 20-year-old to jail, too, like a drug court timeout. For a week, he’d sit in a cell
downtown, waiting the hear what the judge would do with him. It’s never just up to her, though.
She’s just one vote of seven on a 10-person drug court team, which meets every Tuesday and is composed of Judge Diekhoff, Director Malone, three case managers, a Bloomington Police Department field officer, representatives from the offices of the prosecutor and public defender, a counselor from OASIS at IU and a woman from Centerstone, who represents the treatment community. They talk about the status of each participant — urine screen results, progress in counseling, attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
A week after the showdown between the judge, the addict and the 20-year-old, both men sat at the front of the courtroom in orange jumpsuits and shackles, watching their free peers trickle into seats in the gallery.
It was just after 8 a.m., and the judge had already checked in with half of the crowded room. She’d heard about one man’s upcoming surgery and got teased by another participant for saying “groovy.”
She smiled with a proud, new dad, whose wife had given birth to a baby boy the day before. “Six pounds, three ounces, 19 inches,” the man announced to the room, a smile spanning his exhausted face.
“I’m just a happy dad,” he told her. “And you’re sober and celebrating,” she smiled, reminding the proud dad, like she does with all her participants, that life is better when they aren’t strung out.
She welcomed a new participant to the program, a woman who had already relapsed, but was honest about it. There was no chastising. The participant had been forthright, an essential first step.
After a few more interactions, the judge looked toward Director Malone, who nodded.
“We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming,” she said, pausing, “for graduation.”
There were three of them total. They’d made it through 591 drug tests, earned 186 incentives and checked in at the Community Corrections Building 1,188 times. The judge, back in her shiny black robe, offered them official certificates and warm hugs.
“I’m proud of you,” she whispered to each.
One graduate had been in the program since October 2009 and relapsed four times early on.
“Don’t do it the way I did it. I just couldn’t be honest with myself,” he conceded to the room. “Thanks to drug court for putting up with me all these years.”
Then the court upheld their end of the bargain, dismissing the criminal charges from
his record. Everyone clapped.
“This is the reason we, with the drug court treatment program, do what we do,” Director Malone said to the rest of the room.
The judge shed her robe again and prepared to address her drug court people who had reoffended and were back in jail, who’d been watching and waiting for almost an hour. She made her way down the line, then turned to the 20-year-old, the last participant of the morning.
“OK,” she said. “Why are you in jail?”
“I went to a party and I shouldn’t have,” he replied.
The judge asked why he let his friend drink.
“I didn’t do it intentionally,” he said. “I’m just not used to turning people down. I need to learn how to say no.”
“Why didn’t you take him home?” she pressed harder.
“I should have,” he said.
She continued to grill him, not satisfied with his answers.
“Pay attention to me,” she said sternly. “Are you supposed to be around people that are drinking at all?”
“No, ma’am,” he conceded again.
She kept pushing.
“Your actions are despicable and unacceptable and should not be happening if you are serious about this program and truly invested in your own sobriety,” the judge said.
“And the sanction for that,” she paused, “is staying in jail.”
On the hardest days, the judge tries to remind herself why she does this. She recycles quotes in her mind, some of the same ones that hang in frames around her office.
“One small act can transform the world,” she thinks to herself.
“You’ve got to believe in something,” she says.
The starfish charm on her wrist helps, too. There’s a story she likes, adopted from an essay by writer Loren Eiseley, about a young child who happens upon an old man at the beach.
Spanning the sand are thousands of starfish, baking beneath the hot sun, the tide sinking lower. The child watches the old man toss the starfish out to sea, one at a time, and asks how such an impossible task could make a difference at all.
“It made a difference to that one,” the man says, throwing another into the water.
If she can just make a difference in one life, she tells herself, it’s worth it.
Even when she isn’t judge, she’s still judge. If she sees her drug people at the gas station or at the grocery store, she makes it a point to say hello — she hopes it will make their dealers steer clear.
That’s about the only interaction outside the courtroom she’s allowed to have with her drug court people. They invite her to group picnics and social gatherings, but for ethical reasons, she’s not allowed to go.
In drug court she’s usually just one voice of many, but if the team decides to terminate a participant, she’s the one who has to put the black robe back on and send them to prison.
“Those are not a typical day at the office,” the judge says.
Her job can be isolating for the same reasons. She can’t talk about her day with friends or family, and she’s hypersensitive to the way American culture perpetuates destructive behavior.
If she drinks, she doesn’t do it in public. The judge can’t go to see action movies at the theater anymore because she hates the violence. She tries to walk once a day to clear her head.
Playing with her “misfit clan” of rescue dogs — Emmitt, Hershey and Blake — helps, too.
In Monroe County, court is aligned closely with the structure of the very first drug court, founded in Dade County, Fla., in 1989. But the drug court staff is always looking for ways to improve the program.
The judge has two goals for the near future — start a re-entry court and develop a social event where the drug court staff can interact with their people’s families.
Many of her drug court people come from broken homes, but she knows how important it is to have support of friends and family. If she can solicit their help, it makes keeping her people sober less challenging.
“Yes, you’re getting treatment. Yes, you’re dealing with it as a disease — alcoholism and addiction is a disease,” the judge says, “but we’re also holding you accountable for those choices you are making while you are dealing with the disease.”
The 20-year-old had spent two weeks in jail before the judge let him off the hook. She put him on house arrest and told him he had to check in at the Community Corrections building daily.
The tracking bracelet on his ankle would ensure he stayed away from parties and away from alcohol.
“It means you have to follow the rules,” the judge said in court. “Are you going to follow the rules?”
He found a new job and returned to his drug court journaling class. It’s a group of five men who meet at 7:30 every Monday morning with case manager Brier Frasier in the Community Corrections building, where every door dons a window cling that says “Believe.”
Together, they work through a booklet that helps them identify goals and understand their addictive thinking.
When the judge saw him last week, he was already doing better. He’d excelled in journaling class a few days before, and his case manager shared that with the team.
In class, he said he wanted to be more open-minded and told the class his plan — bring an organization folder everywhere, take notes about everything and share what he learns with his family. He’d even hung a white board in his hallway, so others could help him be accountable to his commitments and meetings.
“I want to listen to everything everyone has to say before I respond to them,” he said.
In Courtroom 313 two days later, the judge addressed the 20-year-old.
He stood in the back, wearing a blue Zoo York T-shirt. He’d accidentally left early for a meeting, a violation of his house arrest, and had been assigned a day of road crew to clean trash along the highway as punishment. He had scheduled it for the Sunday of Little 500.
“I don’t really want (you)around a bunch of drunken college students,” the judge told him, raising her eyebrows as the rest of the room smiled.
“I don’t want to be around them, either,” he grinned back, shaking his head.
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