The title for this blog post seemed to be the best way I could convince you to click through so that I could point you to what I think is a tremendous piece of long-form journalism by Ira Glass of the radio program This American Life. Earlier this year, Glass aired a major investigative piece into the “drug court” of Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams (left) in Glyn County, Georgia.
I don' think we have “drug courts” in Canada (please, reader, enlighten me if we do though We have them here in Canada too, readers write to tellme, and they are experimenting with them in the UK) but the premise here is that those accused of drug offences can choose to go through the system the old-fashioned way where they have to post a bond to get out of jail while awaiting their trial and then they face peril of being sentenced to a prison term if they are convicted. Of course, they have a chance at a “not guilty” verdict and have built-in appeals processes and the U.S. Constitution which, presumably helps with a fair trial. The “old-fashioned way” also does not provide built-in help for the offender with addiction, education, mental health and so on.
But there's another option in many U.S. counties: The drug court. There are more than 2,500 in the U.S. Here, the defendant essentially admits right off the top to being guilty and signs away rights of appeal in exchange for, the offenders hope, avoiding jail. Judges are given tremendous power and leeway all in the name of trying to rehabilitate or cure the offender of any addiction. Offenders must submit to mandatory drug testing and the court often insists the offender use all sorts of social services while in “drug court”. The approach is one supported by both parties in the U.S. and, apparently, has become an effective way to rehabilitate drug offenders and is a whole lot cheaper than incarceration.
But, as Glass reports, in Judge Williams drug court, the absence of any checks or balances on the judge's power over an offender can lead to some terrible travesties:
We hear the story of Lindsey Dills, who forges two checks on her parents' checking account when she's 17, one for $40 and one for $60, and ends up in drug court for five and a half years, including 14 months behind bars, and then she serves another five years after that—six months of it in Arrendale State Prison, the other four and a half on probation. The average drug court program in the U.S. lasts 15 months. But one main way that Judge Williams' drug court is different from most is how punitive it is. Such long jail sentences are contrary to the philosophy of drug court, as well as the guidelines of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. For violating drug court rules, Lindsey not only does jail terms of 51 days, 90 days and 104 days, Judge Williams sends her on what she calls an “indefinite sentence,” where she did not specify when Lindsey would get out.
And then there's the case of 22-year-old Brandi Byrd. She got caught by police with two Darvoset pills, a painkiller. She told police they were her mother's and that her mother had given them to her because, without health insurance, Byrd could not afford any painkillers after she had an operation to remove some pre-cancerous cells that could have turned into cervical cancer. She was charged with two felony counts – one for each pill. Darvoset is a schedule four drug under Georgia law. It's her first offense. After spending six days in jail before, Byrd is ready for her first appearance before a judge – Judge Williams. Byrd is told by the public defender and by the drug court's drug counsellors that she will likely be sentenced to between one and five years in prison — for holding two pills — or she can sign her rights away and go into the “drug court” program Williams runs where she'll be out on the street but required to attend counselling and behave according to a strict court-supervised code of conduct. She picks drug court, finds the program a farce, violates its rules — and gets sentenced to two years in jail. Remember: Her original offence was being caught with two painkiller pills. Glass quotes one defense attorney: “I would say in most courtrooms that that would be dismissed either through an affidavit or testimony of the mother saying she gave it to the daughter.” Glass talks to a district attorney about Byrd's case: “if the person didn’t go into drug court, then it would probably be a probation case.” Judge Williams put her in the can for two years.
While you can click through to read the transcript, I encourage you to throw it on the iPod or find someway to listen to it — you need to hear Lindsey Dills, Brandi Byrd and Judge Williams in their own voices.
And even if you're part of the “tough on crime” crowd, I think you might find Judge Williams to be a little too tough on crime.
Judge Williams didn't think so, though. (And she's got a recent re-election in her county to back her claim up.) So the judge, despite repeated requests for interviews and information from Glass while he researched the story, fired off a 14-page letter [pdf] and a press release [pdf] accusing Glass of engaging in “libel masquerading as journalism.”
The judge, though her lawyer, also makes the claim that:
“Glass [left] is an admitted character assassin who’s not above using his national radio platform for partisan political purposes in the national debate about drug courts, meanwhile trashing a local official whose major offense was to succeed at helping people to get off of drugs, keep off drugs, and survive.”
It's a ridiculous claim as anyone who is a fan of Glass' show knows. His whole schtick is to be the very opposite of a character assassin. He's quiet, sympathetic and bends over backwards to avoid being judgemental. There is a certainly a narrative or a through-line to his pieces which often lead a listener to make some conclusions or judgements but the hallmark of the stories on This American Life is that there is enough those stories that you and I might reach different conclusions — and be able to have a good discussion about them based on those stories. It's precisely the reason This American Life is so widely well-regarded
So Glass writes:
Let me state here unequivocally: I do not admit to being a character assassin. Also: I am not a character assassin. Further: I have no idea what “partisan political purposes” would be in the national debate over drug courts since, as I point out in my story, both major parties support drug courts.
I point all this out in the hope that you'll take the time to first, to listen to Glass' report and then watch the rather remarkable and rare counter-attack by a sitting judge on a journalist. Glass' initial response to that attack is here.