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For the past decade, the District’s drug court has been praised as an innovative and ambitious approach to nonviolent drug cases — offering defendants an opportunity to get clean, rather than face jail time. In a city where 10 percent of the population is reportedly addicted to narcotics or alcohol and where more than half of its violent crime defendants test positive for drug use, a court program aimed at what is perceived to be the core problem of numerous social ills has consistently received broad support and funding. But the D.C. Superior Court Drug Intervention Program is undergoing a serious test. While the percentage of offenders completing the program has remained relatively constant, the number participating in the program has plunged from 254 in December 2002 to 95 this August. Of the 207 defendants found eligible to participate between January and June, just 51 — or 25 percent — were placed in the program. That’s a sharp decline in participation: In 2001 and 2002, between 50 percent and 70 percent of those found eligible entered the program. The drop has been so steep that the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, which manages the program, has shifted staff to another drug treatment program. And criminal justice officials are in the process of installing new, more flexible standards in order to keep more people in the program. The chief reason for the decrease and much of the impetus behind the recent reforms is Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin, according to defense lawyers and other criminal justice officials. Mitchell-Rankin, they say, has taken a strict approach to overseeing drug court defendants and does not hesitate to kick people out of the program who she feels are not dedicated to remaining sober or drug-free. In addition, defense lawyers say Mitchell-Rankin has removed incentives for graduating from the program, such as the general practice of sentencing felony defendants who graduate from the program to probation. “There’s no concept of a drug addict’s situation, and there’s a real lack of compassion,” says one D.C. defense lawyer, who, like nearly all interviewed for this article, spoke only on the condition that she not be named. “You’re dealing with people who have problems and can’t deal with them well, which is why they’re there in the first place,” adds another defense lawyer. “You need a degree of leniency, which she hasn’t shown.” Others, however, credit the judge with taking her job seriously. “She’s tough, but does really care about the defendants,” says Susan Shaffer, director of Pretrial Services. Mitchell-Rankin, a no-nonsense judge who has been on the local bench for nearly 14 years, says the program is meant to give defendants an opportunity to change their lives and not simply be used as a means to avoid jail time while continuing drug use. “I believe in treatment, but I believe treatment involves more than just attendance with a group,” says Mitchell-Rankin. “This is a program that requires people to work hard, and I do hold people accountable for that.” And while the drug court program has lost participants, Pretrial Services statistics show that the percentage of people graduating from the program has not changed dramatically since Mitchell-Rankin took over as presiding judge. In 2002, before Mitchell-Rankin, the rate of graduation was 44 percent. This year, it’s been about 39 percent. Mitchell-Rankin’s approach is described by some as clinical or mechanical and in sharp contrast with that of her immediate predecessor, Judge Melvin Wright, who ran the court for the previous two years. Wright was known for giving defendants numerous chances to change their behavior and was viewed as a booster who transformed the stale atmosphere of the courtroom into one of camaraderie and peer support. “Drug court operates a lot based upon the judge that’s in there,” Wright says. “It has a lot of flexibility.” Wright says he and Mitchell-Rankin have different philosophical approaches to the program. “I was more inclusive of having people in and trying to support each other,” Wright says. “She is more restrictive. She wants to have people that in her view are dedicated to it.” D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III, who assigned Mitchell-Rankin the job, says he has not received any complaints about Mitchell-Rankin and “at this time, there is no effort to retool” the court. “I do think it’s an important effort and each judge who takes it on establishes a new relationship with the people who come into that court,” says King. King says he plans to announce the court’s 2004 calendar assignments this week. He would not say whether Mitchell-Rankin will continue as the drug court judge for another year. Wright, however, says it may be time for the court to rethink how it operates the drug court program so that participation levels are not dependent on the judge running the court at the time. He concedes, however, that one impediment to consistency is the fact that the court system has yet to find a way to measure success in drug court. Defendants who graduate from the program are not monitored once they leave the confines of the criminal justice system. Those who fail the program are absorbed into the massive general felony and misdemeanor calendars. And more defendants in the program doesn’t necessarily mean the court is functioning properly. Still, nearly everyone agrees that strong support from the defense bar, which steers defendants to the drug court, is critical to the program’s survival. Such sentiments are especially important at a time when Superior Court operates several other social service courts — focusing on prostitution, quality-of-life crimes committed in the Anacostia neighborhood, and traffic violations. These courts, established over the past two years, were modeled on the drug court program. A NEW DIRECTION In 1993, with $8 million in federal money, Superior Court — like many urban courts at the time, overflowing with drug-related criminal cases — agreed to test a drug court program that would give nonviolent drug defendants a chance to get clean by lining them up with the treatment. Generally, defendants are expected to stay in the program for six months. By 1998, the drug court became a permanent part of the D.C. court system. To qualify, defendants must test positive for drugs at the time of arrest or can be assessed at a later time if a judge finds evidence of substance abuse. Also, they must be charged with a nonviolent offense, such as possession or dealing. Those arrested with a gun or who have violent criminal histories are excluded. Participants sign a contract agreeing to regular drug testing, meetings with counselors, and court hearings. The rationale is simple: Reward good behavior, and punish foul-ups. If a defendant makes it through the program, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will drop a misdemeanor charge. If the person had been charged with a felony, the drug court judge will decide the appropriate sentence. Defense lawyers say felons who “graduated” from the program would normally receive probation. Those admitted to the program who test positive for drugs or fail to show up for testing or other matters are sent before the judge, who then issues sanctions. First- time violators spend two days watching drug court proceedings from the jury box. For subsequent violations, a person must spend three days in jail or face more intensive anti-drug measures, such as inpatient treatment. The judge has the discretion to waive sanctions, and the defendant has the right to request a hearing challenging the results of a drug test. An Urban Institute study of the D.C. drug court pilot program surveyed some former participants one year after leaving the program. The report, released in 2000, found that drug court participants were “significantly less likely” than other defendants to be arrested in the year following sentencing. According to the report, 19 percent of drug court participants were arrested within a year of being sentenced, while 27 percent of other defendants were arrested in that time. Other reports mirrored the general theme of the Urban Institute study that the use of drug treatment and sanctions saves money by keeping some offenders from returning. But no one has figured out what exactly works and what doesn’t. THE WRIGHT DECISION Judge Wright, who presided over drug court from January 2001 to December 2002, says it is difficult to measure success in the drug court program. “Once they leave us, they’re on their own,” says Wright. “They’re only one use away from being back in it.” Wright says he would kick people out of the program, but if they were showing a “substantial effort” in changing their lives, then he would usually allow them to remain no matter how many times they stumbled. That outlook won Wright, once known as one of the court’s toughest sentencers, high marks from the local defense bar, which noted that the judge even recruited defendants from C-10 — the arraignment courtroom. Under his watch, the program initially fell in participants from 138 in January 2001 to a low of 107 in July 2001. It then steadily increased to a high of 254 in December 2002 — Wright’s final month on the court. (Most judges remained as head of the drug court for one year, but Wright volunteered for a second.) Wright, who is now handling civil cases, says his two-year tour was life-changing for him. He says he is much more dedicated to the social service cause of giving drug addicts an opportunity to recover and is talking with D.C. Council members in an effort to get more money for drug treatment. “This is the number one problem we have in our society,” says Wright. Last year the Drug Policy Alliance, working with funding from philanthropist George Soros, placed an initiative on the D.C. ballot, informally named Treatment Instead of Jails. Measure 62 was designed to guarantee drug treatment for nonviolent defendants charged with possession of PCP or cocaine. As long as a person was seeking treatment, such crimes would no longer carry a prison term. City officials launched a last-minute attempt to strike the measure from the ballot on technical grounds. The ,court — specifically Chief Judge King and Judge Wright, as well as U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr. — moved on the public relations front, arguing that such a law would impede the city’s well-functioning drug court. Nevertheless, the measure was approved by 78 percent of the local vote on Nov. 5. The D.C. Council voted to set aside the measure, and a D.C. Superior Court judge later ruled that the measure could not be implemented because it was legally flawed. That same month, Wright began looking for a successor to preside over the drug court, but could find no one. Wright says he considered staying on for another year. He says that some judges who had shown interest in the drug court earlier had taken on assignments in the new Family Court. “I think I waited too long,” Wright says. “You have to have somebody who wants to be there.” Without any volunteers, King assigned Mitchell-Rankin, formerly presiding judge of the Family Division, to the job. Mitchell-Rankin says the issue is not whether she wanted the job. “I do the assignment, and I do it to the best of my ability.” NEW DIRECTIONS In her first month, Judge Mitchell-Rankin began reassessing the program. “There were a number of people who were picking up quite a number of infractions — seven, eight, or nine infractions,” says Mitchell-Rankin, adding that there were also a large number of people who had stopped showing up for court-ordered appointments or testing and for whom bench warrants had been issued. Mitchell-Rankin says that after a person commits a second infraction, the only sanctions available to her is to offer them more-intensive treatment or to throw them in jail for three days. “This program is not designed in my judgment to continue to put people in jail all the time,” Mitchell-Rankin says. “This is a voluntary program where there is an incentive not to do what caused the violation in the first place.” Beginning in January, the program lost roughly 50 participants a month for three straight months. Defense lawyers claim most of that was due to Mitchell-Rankin kicking people out of the drug court program. “There was a clear shift in attitude,” says one defense lawyer describing the difference between Wright and Mitchell-Rankin. “The difference was stark.” For her part, Mitchell-Rankin says she has given defendants a choice: Get serious, or get out. One option she would offer repeat violators was inpatient drug treatment. If they had several violations and refused changes to their “treatment modality,” they were gone. The judge also infuriated defense lawyers when she stated upfront that defendants with felonies would not “automatically” receive probation if they made it through the program. Soon, defense lawyers — mostly those who pick up court-appointed cases through the Criminal Justice Act — stopped sending clients to the program. Instead, they say, they thought their clients would receive more favorable treatment in a relatively new pretrial drug treatment program called New Directions. That plan, which in some cases requires 30 days of inpatient treatment before being returned to the community and further outpatient treatment, carries no jail sanction. Rather, sanctions in that program usually involve a return to an inpatient program of 14 days. The defendant’s case remains with a judge other than the drug court judge. According to the Pretrial Services Agency, the New Directions program has been gradually building from about 30 defendants in fall 2000 to 238 now. Shaffer of Pretrial Services says that the New Directions program was set up as an option for defendants who were not eligible for the standard drug court program for such things as arrest for a violent crime. Participation in the New Directions program has spiked — even though, unlike under the drug court program, a defendant has less of a chance of having his criminal case thrown out.

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