Monday, May 26, 2008

Lancaster Drug Court: Something to feel proud about!

If ever there would be a Drug Court that would be successful, a visit last Tuesday to the Court of Judge David L. Ashworth convinced an activist in the field of drug policy reform and harm reduction that the program is located here in Lancaster.

Judge David L. Ashworth has the clean cut look of a 1950’s movie star, and his commitment to helping those before his court takes second place to no social worker. Married thirty years and the father of three daughters, Ashworth exhibits both compassion and a toughness of both mind and body, as witness his second degree black belt standing in Tang Soo Do Karate.

His routine Tuesday afternoon court session started with the announcement of the birth of a healthy baby to a couple participating in the program, along with the date of the annual picnic for court personnel and clients. Participants were called before the judge in groups of three and addressed by their first names in a caring manner.

Each was asked about his or her progress. The judge, well versed by his "team" of drug court offices, asked about regular attendance at support group meetings, about progress in receiving reimbursement when a car was rear ended (and proffering a helpful suggestion), checked on progress of faltering relationship with a volunteer sponsor with whom clients are encouraged to share their concerns and successes, responded to a request for advice about a possible job change by reminding that the prime consideration is "recovery comes first", and admonishing a recalcitrant male for excessive dirty urine samples "if you aren’t serious about recovery, don’t take up the space" as the offender was hand cuffed and taken back to jail.

He was also told how "48 hours in prison woke me up" from a male, and was saddened when a bright young lady, soon to graduate from the program, explained that she "can’t go to nursing school due to an earlier misdemeanor" even though her current charges were being expunged.

Yet, in Judge Ashworth’s own words as part of a posting at

"How do you measure success? Is it the number of graduates? Is it the methodically collected information outlined in the Process Evaluation Report prepared by a well respected PH.D. from Millersville University? Perhaps it’s the number of letters received by the "Team" thanking them for saving a life or reuniting a family. Or maybe success is measured best by the four "totally clean" babies born since the program was started. Whatever the measure, those of us involved in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas Adult Drug Court have seen tremendous changes in the lives of those Drug Court participants (and their families) with whom we have worked over the last two and a half years.

"Is Drug Court a success? Only time will tell. For me, serving as the Drug Court Judge has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I’ll leave the final analysis of whether it is a ‘success’ to those more learned in evaluating statistics…"

According to the Sixth Edition of Drug War Facts (, Drug Courts have been much applauded, however some concerns about their fairness and effectiveness have been expressed.

These include:

  1. Providing coerced treatment at a time when the needs for voluntary treatment are not being met creates the strange circumstance of someone needing to get arrested to get treatment.
  2. People who are forced into treatment may not actually need it. They may just be people who use drugs in a non-problematic way who happened to get arrested. Arrest may not be the best way to determine who should get treatment services.
  3. Drug Courts are a much less expensive way of handling drug cases in the criminal justice system, thus they may result in more people being arrested and processed, many of whom would not have been arrested or would have been diverted. And it is true that the number of drug arrests has grown dramatically since the early 1990s. Thus, drug courts may be expanding the number of people hurt by the drug war.
  4. Drug Courts are creating a separate system of justice for drug offenders, a system that does not rely on the key traditions of an adversary system of justice and due process, a system where the defense, prosecution and judge work as a team to force the offender into a treatment program.
  5. Drug Courts typically rely on abstinence-based treatment. For example, methadone is sometimes not available to heroin addicts.
  6. In addition, Drug Courts rely heavily on urine testing rather than focusing on whether the person is succeeding in employment, education or family relationships, and in avoiding re-arrest.
  7. Drug Courts also sometimes mandate twelve-step treatment programs which some believe to be an infringement on religious freedom.

Further Excerpts:

Drug Courts invade the confidentiality of patient and health-care provider. The health-care provider's client is really the court, prosecutor and probation officer, rather than the person who is getting drug treatment. Pertinent accompanying factoids are: "The last decade has seen the rapid growth of specialized court forums in the states. The first drug court was created in Dade County, Florida in 1989; all but ten states followed that example within the next decade."

Source: Rottman, David, et al., Bureau of Justice Statistics, State Court Organization, 1998 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, June 2000), p. 207.

"Even offenders who do not succeed in drug court appear to be less criminally active than they were previously. This may be due to the benefits of treatment or the supervision, sanctions, intensive surveillance, and specific deterrence of the drug court."

Source: Gebelein, Richard S., National Institute of Justice, "The Rebirth of Rehabilitation: Promise and Perils of Drug Courts" (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, May 2000), p. 5.

In a law review article, Colorado Judge Morris B. Hoffman writes, "Reductions in recidivism are so small that if they exist at all they are statistically meaningless. Net-widening is so large that, even if drug courts truly were effective in reducing recidivism, more drug defendants would continue to jam our prisons than ever before."

Source: District Judge Morris B. Hoffman, Second Judicial District (Denver), State of Colorado, "The Drug Court Scandal", North Carolina Law Review (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Law Review Association, June 2000), Vol. 78, No. 5, p. 1533-4.

In a law review article, Colorado Judge Morris B. Hoffman writes, "By existing simply to appease two so diametric and irreconcilable sets of principles, drug courts are fundamentally unprincipled. By simultaneously treating drug use as a crime and as a disease, without coming to grips with the inherent contradictions of those two approaches, drug courts are not satisfying either the legitimate and compassionate interests of the treatment community or the legitimate and rational interests of the law enforcement community. They are, instead, simply enabling our continued national schizophrenia about drugs."

Source: District Judge Morris B. Hoffman, Second Judicial District (Denver), State of Colorado, "The Drug Court Scandal", North Carolina Law Review (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Law Review Association, June 2000), Vol. 78, No. 5, p. 1477

The visiting activist hesitantly offered the Judge two copies of Drug War Facts and suggested that he might be interested in reading the section on Drug Courts. The judge replied: "I intend to read the entire book!" No one would doubt that he will.