"Recovery Courts" rather than "Drug Courts"

by the Honorable H. Lee Harrell, Circuit Court Judge, 27th Judicial Circuit of Virginia

    I have gotten into trouble in my life. An example was my sophomore year at Wake Forest University when I violated the university’s now laughably quaint “intervisitation” policy. My penance was multiple hours of scrubbing rocks in the anthropology lab. Among the array of sanctions I have suffered for various infractions, highway trash pickup was never one. It wasn’t until I became a circuit court judge that I was made to pick up what I deemed to be shockingly unspeakable items casually tossed out onto the roadway’s shoulders. This fall from grace stemmed from my participation in the Giles County Recovery Court Program.

    I prefer the term “Recovery Court” to “Drug Court.” I am a firm believer in calling things what they are. “Drug Courts” should not be about drugs. A Recovery Court is a holistic program authorized by the Code of Virginia (Section 18.2-254.1….you can go and read the statute if that sort of thing appeals to you) and by the Virginia Supreme Court. To boil it down as succinctly as I can (I’m still a lawyer, so brevity is a tall order), the defendant, who is usually facing charges related to drug offenses, is brought into the program by an agreement with the Commonwealth’s Attorney. This individual has been pre-screened by the local community services board and must have a high need for substance abuse treatment and be at a high risk for re-offending. They also must be approved by the Recovery Court team. A hearing is held wherein a finding is made that there are facts sufficient to find the defendant guilty but rather than conviction the matter is deferred, and the person enrolled in the Recovery Court program for approximately 18 months. During that time, the individual is subjected to the highest level of supervision I have witnessed in my career. The supervision is nearly constant in the initial phases. It includes daily check-ins with Recovery Court staff, frequent screening and testing for prohibited drug use, bi-monthly court appearances, electronic monitoring through cell phone apps, participation in day report programs, community service, mentoring services, and a comprehensive treatment regimen though the local community services board.

    The idea is a whole cloth revamping of the individual. Substance abuse is often a symptom to underlying mental health issues. Unraveling those issues, all the while dealing with the behemoth of addiction, is a herculean task for the participants and the Recovery Court team. In my role as judge in the Recovery Court, I sometimes feel like a talking head news anchor. The team, and especially our coordinator, Lori Trail, does the yeoman’s work by handling the day-to-day grind of supervising individuals who are battling addictions that may have been in place for decades. I simply have to oversee the court proceedings and manage the team meetings. In other words, they make me look good, and I do far less work than they do.

    The team meetings occur prior to the bi-monthly court hearings of the Recovery Court. In those meetings Lori presents the progress of each participant as summarized by all the various participating agencies. We learn about how the person is progressing in their treatment, their compliance with the rigorous strictures of the program, their community service obligations, their payment of costs, their employment prospects, and their overall well-being. We get into the nitty-gritty of their personal lives. Sometimes, it has a “Days of Our Lives” feel to it.

    If they are doing well, their efforts are met with various celebrations. As they move through the graduated stages of the Recovery Court, they are lauded for their accomplishments and given rewards such as progressively lessened supervision, public accolades, and gift cards. The successful candidate graduates the program with as much flair as we can muster. Our graduations usually pack the courtroom with well-wishers. The ultimate reward for a successful graduate of the Recovery Court is having the pending charges dismissed, although the Code of Virginia authorizes nearly any outcome, such as having the charges reduced to misdemeanors or a fully suspended sentence.

    If the participants have violated the rules of the program, sanctions are swiftly imposed. These sanctions are agreed upon by the team members, and they are customized to address the specific situation. The most common problem is relapse and substance usage. Though never tolerated, it is expected in the initial phases of the program as the new participants grapple with the ravages of abuse. As they progress in the Recovery Court Program, tolerance for use wanes. Sanctions can include essay writing, community service, and brief stints in jail. The harshest sanction is removal from the program and a subsequent return to “ordinary” court for final disposition of the case. What is extraordinary about the sanction system is that the strictures of due process are no longer in place, and the participant can be punished without the panoply of protections built into the American criminal justice system. This requires the Recovery Court team to be cautious in the use of sanctions.

    For me, the Recovery Court has offered a much-welcomed revitalization of my career. Now decades of working in the criminal justice system had left me jaded about the prospects of genuinely assisting someone struggling with addiction. Too few resources coupled with the byzantine complexities of substance addiction and the inadequacies of incarceration as a viable option left me feeling bereft about the ever-expanding problem of drug crimes. Recidivism is rote, and the hackneyed joke in the courtroom is to refer to XYZ Defendant as a “frequent flyer.”

    As a judge, I was necessarily divorced from the defendants compared to the connections I had when I was a defense attorney and even as a prosecutor. Recovery Court changed all of that. The seemingly-endless cycle of incarceration and recidivism was replaced with a comprehensive treatment, rigorous accountability, and a genuine sense of hope. The program necessarily requires that everyone, including the judge, form a cohesive group sharing the same mission: recovery.

    In Recovery Court, I have attended celebrations with participants, gotten to know their families, shared meals, gone on hikes, and suffered running a 5K together. The ordinary protocols, formalities, and hierarchies disappear and real relationships form. As mentioned above, I even wound up picking up trash on the roadside with a participant one Sunday afternoon. Loathing her requisite trash pickup, this participant was struggling to advance in the program. I decided to “bet” her that if she could get the trash pickup hours largely completed, I would finish the last stint with her. Sure enough, she called my bluff, and the two of us spent some time in orange vests laughing in disgust at some of the things we had to dispose of.

    The approach is revolutionary and certainly subject to legitimate criticisms. Judges are trained to remain at a remove to the cases they hear. There are excellent and necessary reasons for this distance. Nevertheless, the system cannot be so rigid that it is unable to react to new circumstances. The ongoing plight of substance abuse and the abject failure of the extant approach mandated the need for change. Whether this grand project is effective remains to be seen. As for me? I am sold. It has helped me to grow as a jurist and as a person. If it is wrong, I have no interest in being right.