- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - When Travis County created its drug court in 1993, the model was innovative. The program sought to steer black offenders away from the criminal justice system, offering defendants with substance abuse issues treatment instead of time in prison.

The shift in strategy became part of a rare bipartisan push for similar specialty courts across the state after a decade of tough-on-crime policies.

But an Austin American-Statesman (https://atxne.ws/1VsoxsV ) investigation has found that as the Travis County Adult Drug Diversion Court has embarked on an overhaul, the program is shutting out disadvantaged groups, and its leaders say they don’t know why.

African-Americans make up 8.9 percent of Travis County residents but 26.8 percent of defendants arrested on felony drug charges. They are convicted of those offenses at a rate of 41.3 percent, which is higher than the conviction rate for white defendants, 32.9 percent. Yet amid the changes to the drug court, participation overall has dropped by more than half in the past five years. Among the least likely to join and fastest to drop out are black offenders, the very population the program was created to serve.

“We need to take drug courts from being symbolic little trophies on every county’s shelf to something that is actually large enough that you can detect its impact,” said William Kelly, a sociology professor at the University of Texas who specializes in criminal justice policy and said he was distressed by the drug court statistics. “We have the tools today, after years of research, on how to effectively change an offender’s behavior. What we lack now is the will to implement those.”

The latest available statistics show that from September 2009 to September 2013, the number of African-Americans in drug court dipped from 81 of 257 participants, or 32 percent, to 10 of 71, or 14 percent. That figure increased only slightly in 2014 to 15 black participants, or 23 percent, out of a total of 64. Hispanics numbered 16 participants, or 25 percent.

Judge Brenda Kennedy and Adult Probation Director Charles Robinson, who oversee and manage the court, say they are unsure why the program is not attracting African-American and Latino participants. They say a major reason is defense lawyers are not referring their clients.

But interviews with nearly two dozen defendants, court staff and criminal defense lawyers reveal that drug court leaders are doing little to address the issues that make it difficult for poor and minority defendants to complete the program.

Offenders, many of whom don’t have a car or a flexible job, said they could not keep up with the increased random drug tests, therapy sessions and rehab requirements, and sanctions for missed court appointments or failed drug tests - which include community service or weekend jail time - often seem too tough and arbitrary.

And officers of the court said they are coming down harder on people who don’t pay up to cover the cost of the program. For single parents, who often cannot afford babysitters or day care, the pressures are even greater.

The result, legal experts said, is a community deprived of a resource that at its best can cut down on substance abuse, county costs and the relapse of offenders into a life of crime.

From his bench through the 1980s, retired Judge Jon Wisser would watch his Travis County courtroom fill with young black men in faded jail jumpsuits. “I remember thinking, ‘I bet every young black male in Austin must be sitting here in this courthouse,’” Wisser said.

Those were the days of Ronald Reagan and the war on drugs, of “just say no” campaigns and a crack epidemic that was wracking minority neighborhoods. Under the tough drug sentencing guidelines of the era, judges would send the defendants to prison, stamping felonies on their records that would hold them back from jobs, recovery and opportunity. Soon, the same faces were back in court.

For years the cycle repeated itself, Wisser said, until he and other state judges in the county began searching for ways to stop the pipeline. The quest would lead them to establish the second drug court in Texas, putting Travis County ahead of what was about to become a statewide movement as lawmakers struggled to handle ballooning incarceration rates and high prison costs.

From the beginning, drug courts measured outcomes, said retired Judge John Creuzot, who headed the program in Dallas. The push for the courts rose from the bottom up, with judges, prosecutors, counselors and county officials working to convince state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and they relied on numbers to show they were more than feel-good initiatives.

The Dallas court, the third in the state, undertook the first studies and among its benefits saw a 68 percent decrease in recidivism - the relapse of offenders into crime. “We got across the desert with those numbers,” he said.

By 2001, the Texas Legislature mandated the creation of drug courts in counties with populations exceeding 550,000. More than six years later, any county with more than 200,000 people was to institute a drug court, and then-Gov. Rick Perry had awarded millions in state funding to boost the effort.

Retired Judge Joel Bennett oversaw the Travis County drug court for more than 19 years, from its inception.

He recalled striving to create an environment in which people wanted to stay sober, which is why he often gave defendants second chances and let them stay in the program longer than the required year. At the core of all drug courts, he said, “what we are talking about is the changing of a life for the betterment of society.”

There is no longer any doubt that drug courts work. Leading programs reduce offenses among participants by as much as 40 percent, and in the U.S. criminal justice system, where legal experts say 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, they can help reduce crime and costs. Now criminal justice leaders in Texas have moved to the next phase: identifying which practices work best to counter addiction and improving statewide oversight to ensure all courts are following them.

In 2013 legislators established a new council of judges and state officials to evaluate specialty courts. They can recommend grant funding cuts for those that don’t meet the state standards.

Those guidelines have changed over time and continue to evolve. Drug courts once relied on 10 broad key components that called for such basic steps as integrating alcohol and drug services. Newer research since 2011 is specific and based on evidence, said Terrance Walton, chief operating officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The latest volume of best standards, published by the national association last spring, lists recommendations on when defendants should undergo drug tests and how long they should meet with the judge. It also calls for courts to impose more stringent sanctions if participants skip treatment and to provide support if they move along successfully. “You have to find a happy medium,” Walton said.

Officials in Travis County began moving toward that model after judges commissioned outside reviews in 2009 and 2010. The first study by the Council of State Governments found that in 2005 and 2006, 48 percent of offenders in the program were arrested again within two years - 2 percent less than those who declined to participate.

The second report detailed 45 shortcomings, including a long wait time for defendants to get into the program. Geraldine Nagy, then the county’s pretrial services and probation director, launched the overhaul in 2011, securing county funding to hire more counselors and bring its treatment in-house.

Amid the overhaul, one national standard the Travis County drug court is not meeting is reaching and retaining poor and minority offenders. Retired judges in Travis County, drug court judges in other Texas counties and national drug court officials say that ensuring fair access has always been a tough challenge, but it must remain part of the ongoing conversation.

All drug courts must keep data on demographics, they said, and should adjust their system of sanctions and rewards when disadvantaged groups are having trouble keeping up. “They need to be monitoring who they are getting in the program as compared to how they are doing, how they are faring in the program,” Walton said. “Not knowing in itself is being out of compliance.”

In grant proposals to the governor’s office from 2008 to 2015, Travis County emphasizes the need for funding to treat African-American offenders, historically the largest segment of the population arrested on felony drug charges. Even as participation rates have dropped and counselors have left, local funding for the program, according to the grant proposals, has risen from $774,790 in fiscal year 2009 to $1.1 million in fiscal year 2015.

But an American-Statesman analysis of more than 400 pages of evaluation reports and audits obtained through open records requests indicate the program has not commissioned an outside performance review since 2010. Meanwhile, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 18 the average wait time for defendants to enter the program was almost 86 days - nearly 11 days longer than before the changes, and four times the national standard.

Robinson, who took over from Nagy in November 2013, implemented another round of changes to the drug court curriculum in May, saying they were meant to build upon the foundation his predecessor had left. He has worked with Dallas County drug courts and serves on the board of directors of the national drug court association.

When asked in August about the measures his office is using to evaluate the court and track its progress through the change, Robinson said his department was researching many programs and could not produce any data. In response to information requests, the department said it could not provide drug court graduation rates by race, ethnicity or gender.

In an interview in October, Robinson said the program had long been successful, pointing to low recidivism numbers in 2009, which showed that 38.8 percent of participants were re-arrested within two years. Yet the report, which was not released to the Statesman until an information request was filed, is marked “subject to change” and lacks certain data from 2010 through 2013.

Robinson said many factors can influence participation rates. When asked whether there were efforts in place to understand what those factors are, he said, “We always want to know that all aspects of our process are working - intake, support services … (Reaching black and Latino defendants) would be just one of many things.”

When asked whether the department had a plan in place to reach out to disadvantaged groups, he said the overhaul was not confined to any particular facet of the program. “There are opportunities to improve, and we are actively engaged in making changes,” he said.

“The process we have in place provides access,” he said. “It’s universally applicable to all defendants in Travis County. Do I think there is an opportunity in Travis County for greater dialogue? Sure, and I think we are all interested in doing that.”

Unlike many programs in other counties, the Travis County drug court gives defendants the chance to keep their records clean if they complete its yearlong treatment and counseling plans. To be eligible for the program, participants must be nonviolent offenders and undergo criminal background and clinical assessments. But in July, when the Statesman first started looking into drug court statistics, key members - its two assigned defense lawyers and prosecutor - had not seen its overall demographics.

Prosecutor Michelle Hallee, who screens defendants, surmised that many black offenders, often entangled in the criminal justice system early in life, were likely not accepted due to lengthy rap sheets. Judge Kennedy, who took over the drug court docket in 2013, expressed frustration and said the court’s steering committee had reached out to community groups and churches to spread information about the program.

Part of the problem, she said, was that many defendants don’t want to go to treatment, which has to be rigorous to help them beat addiction. “Some people are just not ready to put the work in,” she said.

Drug court leaders and members said that also was a factor in the participation drop, regardless of race or ethnicity: Many defendants had been “coasting” for years. Year-end progress reports submitted to the governor’s office show the total number of participants served fell nearly 65 percent, from 410 clients in September 2009 to 145 during the same reporting period in 2015.

Court leaders also blamed defense lawyers, saying attorneys had no incentive to refer clients and often did not take the time to explain the benefits to young offenders ready to take a quick plea deal.

Yet defense lawyers said the drug court seemed to set up poor defendants to fail.

In the beginning stages, clients must go through rehab and submit to random drug tests three times per week at private labs that sometimes take more than an hour to serve them. They also must make weekly appearances before Kennedy at the downtown courthouse and at group therapy sessions held at a county facility near the Austin airport.

The requirements taper off as defendants move through the program and pay their dues. But in those early phases, reaching the different locations can take up to an hour by bus or through rush-hour traffic.

For some offenders who do make it through, the results are life-changing. Caitlin Case, 25, graduated from the program this month after years of struggling with an addiction to heroin. She is working toward becoming a nurse.

“I had lost just about everything to drugs - my dignity, my self-respect, control of my life, and even my brother,” she said. “Had I not been accepted into the drug court program, chances are I would have never gotten sober, and if by some chance I did, it definitely would not have lasted.”


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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