Page 1

Redemption: Drug Court Stories Ruth Nasrullah

Product of my environment? No, I am just a child of none other Who was tempted by the fruit of another –Michael Bonds, poet from Roxbury

In Boston’s Roxbury District Courthouse, Darryl Thomson, 39, stands handcuffed and isolated from the courtroom in the dock – the closed-off box reserved for offenders in custody. He speaks through a hole in the Plexiglas barrier. He stoops to make himself heard. “I’m trying to get my life together. I’ve had a lot of trouble being able to stop heroin and cocaine,” he says. He pauses for the judge’s response, awkward in the handcuffs. Much hangs on this moment. Thomson can avoid prison if the judge offers an alternative: drug court, a court-supervised rehab program. “Now, you’ve heard this is a hard program,” says the judge. “Probation will be on top of you – there will be testing all the time – and you’ll be seeing me every week.” With that admonition he admits Thomson to the drug court program. A court officer removes Thomson’s handcuffs and holds open the door of the dock. Thomson will join a program that offers drug offenders the opportunity to re-shape their lives. Drug court promises a unique outcome in criminal justice. It offers redemption.


2 Donna Singleton I bonded with her in the hospital. They took her away from me. Donna Singleton, 36, sits in her kitchen, elbows on the table, hands clasped, staring ahead. She’s an attractive black woman with short hair and a spray of moles across her face. She has a tiny diamond stud in her nose. She purses her lips when she makes a point. “When I first met my kids it was unconditional love, you know?” she says softly. During the 17 years she used cocaine, her children were not key in her life. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services ensured that she rarely, if ever, had contact with her children. She had seven children in seven years. (Their names have been changed for this article.) She gave birth to the last one eight years ago. DSS was at the gates. “Serena Renee is my last child. Sometimes I get teary-eyed when I think about her because I don’t know where she is. I bonded with her in the hospital. They took her away from me,” she says. “I got discharged and she was still there at the hospital and one day I went up to see her and she was gone.” In fall 2002, Singleton faced a two-year prison sentence. She spent three weeks in Boston’s Nashua Street Jail, where she decided to address the addiction that led her there. She asked for help, and her probation officer recommended drug court. “I was in a dilemma of just either doing my time or getting some help, and instead of doing the time I wanted the help. I could have easily said OK, well I just want to do the time and get it over with, that way I have nothing hanging over my head, but there


3 were things that need to be considered, like my children, my house,” she says of her decision to enter the drug court program. She was placed in Griffin House, a residential treatment facility, but after two months left of her own accord and went to her friend Walter’s apartment in Weymouth, a town on Boston’s South Shore. She took a risk: she had violated the terms of her program. However, she voluntarily enrolled in an outpatient treatment program and told her probation officer, Maria Souza, what she was doing. “The outpatient program that she chose was a very strict one and that’s the only reason why we let her do that,” says Souza. Singleton appreciates doing her program her own way. “Since I came out of the Griffin House, I went right into an outpatient program and it’s so much better. Not only do I have my freedom but I get to spend time with my kids, who I haven’t seen in a long, long time, eight years. So it’s working for me – outpatient – which I didn’t think would ever work for me,” she says. Since starting rehab, she says, she has been able to see four of her children. The four she sees are Joe, 10; Dave and Don, 9-year-old twins; and Sue, 8. They live in Roxbury with their father, she says. Singleton mentions her children over and over when discussing her drug history. “I always thought that I would be missing something if I gave up the drugs. Not seeing my kids made it even worse, the mental part of it, ‘cause I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it. When I got clean this time a friend of mine told me, ‘I got the number to where your kids are.’ She said, ‘I’ve seen your kids and they gave me the number to where they are, so why don’t you call them?’”


4 The four who visit may be able to establish a relationship with a mother who was always distant. The other two live with cousins and do not know that Singleton is their mother. The baby is gone, likely forever. One afternoon before court she waited to speak with her current probation officer, Stephen Chandler, about the situation with her children. She said she had been making frantic phone calls trying to get the electricity and hot water back on in the home where they live with their father. She hoped she might get custody of the children. She hoped she might get into a training program so she could work. When she was younger, she said, she wanted to be a nurse or a secretary. While she waited, her friend Walter (who refused to give his last name) repeatedly muttered to her, “Go see Steve, go see Steve.” He spoke in an agitated sotto voce, trying to hammer home his point. She tried to keep him calm. “I know, I know. Just wait a minute, he’s talking to someone.” Despite the tension, Singleton credits Walter and his family with a big role in her recovery. She says Walter’s mother took her in until Singleton got into a detox program. Walter accompanies Singleton to nearly every drug court session. They sit together with the easy closeness of longtime friends. Singleton leans over frequently to speak into Walter’s ear. After court, Walter drives to the Weymouth apartment where he and Singleton live. He explains several times why he’s driving the long way: to avoid traffic. Perhaps so, but it’s not a calming route. He is a true Boston driver, yelling at other drivers who can’t hear him. “Calm down,” says Singleton.


5 As Walter drives through town, Singleton points out the office where she has group therapy sessions, the building where her psychiatrist’s office is, the lab where her urine tests are done. “My program consists of my doctor, my psychiatrist, my counselor; I go to group meetings – relationships and recovery – and my urines, and court,” she says. Urine testing is important to Singleton – no matter her progress elsewhere, objective proof of sobriety is the benchmark of recovery. In court, Chandler once reported that Singleton had missed a urine test. He had barely finished his sentence before Singleton indignantly denied it. She takes pride in regular and clean urines. They make it home, traffic and bad drivers notwithstanding. Walter is edgy and repeatedly mumbles directives at Singleton. She dismisses him, and when he persists she snaps at him. She rolls her eyes. A few months into her program Singleton wore a suit to court. Many Roxbury drug court participants do this. Suits make the statement that they feel good about themselves. For Singleton her appearance also reflects her recovery – when she was using, she says, she weighed “80 pounds soaking wet, if that much.” She says she wants to move forward. She fights her addiction every day. “On a nice day, on a cloudy day, on a rainy day, doesn’t matter what type of day it is, I still struggle with it, and I’m nine months clean,” she says. The bad times are sharp in her memory. She describes one night as the worst, and believes it was a turning point. “What happened was I had got evicted from my apartment in Jamaica Plain, and the day was OK because I was getting high and stuff like that, but when the nighttime


6 came it was totally different ‘cause I was all out of money. I couldn’t go stay with a girlfriend of mine because she was living with her people, and I felt like I was lost for the world, you know? “My mother and father were gone, I couldn’t call up my family because I didn’t know who to call – 17 years, just think of it, you’re kind of burning bridges along the way, and family members just don’t want to be bothered with you anymore.” The years she lost with her children undoubtedly haunt her. When asked about them, she puts her hands together as though in prayer. She clacks her long false nails against each other. She squints across the room. Her voice becomes emphatic. “It’s like down the line I just lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, lost – and I couldn’t put two and two together and say to myself, well, maybe you’ve got a problem, maybe this is why your life is in so much turmoil, that it took arrests and arrests – and finally to sit down with myself in jail – to come to some type of understanding of where my life is going and where it could end up.”

COURT A middle-aged man in army fatigues and a dingy beige coat stumbles into berth 20 at Dudley Station in Roxbury. He wears a white baseball cap turned backwards and dress shoes with scuff marks. Hands in his pockets, he does a sort of uncoordinated dance, landing on the macadam and twirling around. He slinks toward a woman sitting on a bench. “Hey, you have a quarter?”


7 She doesn’t look up. He yells the question at her. She glares and shakes her head. He spins away quickly as though she hit him. The #1 bus pulls in. The man gets on and slumps across a row of seats. The bus turns left onto Warren Street. The man’s eyes are half open. Rime has collected on the edges of his mouth. He brings onto the bus a smell of half-digested liquor, the odor of a street drunk. He mumbles. A few blocks away, in the Roxbury Courthouse at 85 Warren St., security guards take cursory glances at bags going through the X-ray scanner. The metal detector rings frequently, but rarely causes concern. The guards greet and joke with many entering the building. On the patio outside the courthouse drug court probationers gather. They talk, bouncing on their toes. They laugh. They slouch on benches. They smoke cigarettes. They shake hands with acquaintances on business in criminal court. On the second floor, the court clerk and probation officers wheel their carts full of files into the first session, a spacious courtroom with the air of a theater. Drug court starts at 2 p.m. every Wednesday. Judge J. Peter Anderson presides. He’s congenial on the bench. He has a paternal streak. He treats drug court clients with compassion, and sternness when he chooses. When the drug court team – judge, probation officers, public defenders and treatment specialist – enter the courtroom, they are well prepared for the afternoon’s docket. They have just come from the meeting held before every drug court session. At this meeting, the team discusses each probationer’s status. Probation officers provide detailed verbal reports. Each probationer’s phase in the program, treatment venue, most


8 recent drug screen results and other information are listed in a grid the court clerk distributes to team members. The judge makes many decisions in the pre-court meeting. The atmosphere is collegial. “Should she get a star?” Judge Anderson asks the team about a client who is doing well. He rewards progress with colored star stickers. By the time court begins, the team has been fully briefed. Drug court is a treatment program nestled within the justice system. It is courtdirected drug rehab. It offers addiction treatment and close supervision as an alternative to incarceration for drug, or drug-related, crimes. The idea behind the program is that, given the opportunity, drug offenders can break their criminal habits. If it works, prison overcrowding is reduced, drug addicts recover and drug-related crime diminishes. Most Roxbury district offenders enter the program after a hearing at which probation is set. They begin a regimen of residential treatment, graduating to outpatient, in a three-phase program that typically lasts a year – phase I usually lasting three months, phase II six and phase III another three. In theory offenders return to society employed, housed and sober. Offenders are moved through the phases based on the judge’s assessment of reports from the treatment program, probation officer, and treatment specialist, with input from the public defender in cases where probation status is at risk. Probation officers are the staff members most knowledgeable about a client’s case, legal status, therapy progress, personal life, history and potential. Assistant Chief Probation Officer Peter Mazzapica says drug court can be more satisfying work than traditional probation.


9 “Drug court has opened our eyes to a wider variety of treatment options. They [probation staff] get closer to the probationer. They see their success more.” Unlike many programs, Roxbury’s accepts high-risk offenders – those with longstanding criminal histories and repeated, unsuccessful rehab attempts. They are people, Mazzapica says, who have “failed all the systems.” Anderson takes his role as drug court justice very seriously. He believes that compelling an offender to participate in rehab really works. He cites studies demonstrating that “coerced” treatment – not involuntary but lacking attractive alternatives – leads to good outcomes. During one court session he brought up a study done in New York City that followed heroin addicts over the course of 50 years. “Most of them are dead,” he told the group. “So you’ll be in a fight for your life.” The first drug court developed in Dade County, Fla., in 1989. In less than a decade the concept spread throughout the country. According to the National Drug Court Institute, there are over 1,000 drug courts operating nationwide. In the 1980s mandatory sentencing became a key weapon in the so-called “war on drugs.” Drug-related convictions were met with predetermined sentences, with no leeway for leniency or circumstance. The federal prison population increased in proportion to the high numbers of drug convictions with mandated sentences. Overcrowding eventually proved insoluble. As early as 1985 a movement away from mandatory sentencing and toward alternatives, such as diversion programs and supervised probation, began.


10 In the metropolitan Boston area prison overcrowding was proving a serious issue. In his 1989 state of the city address, then-Mayor Raymond Flynn appealed to the state for help with managing the flow of drug-related cases. His suggestions included instituting drug courts. In 1990 Flynn again recommended drug court, as part of his “Safe Neighborhoods” strategy. By 1993 the concept began to take hold in Boston. The Boston Coalition, a civic group formed to address issues of drugs and violence, urged newly-elected mayor Thomas Menino to consider integrating drug court into the Boston Municipal Court system. James W. Dolan, then presiding judge of Boston’s Dorchester District Court and a member of the Coalition’s board of directors, was a leader in the movement to initiate drug court in Boston. In 1994 the Massachusetts legislature formed a state sentencing commission charged with developing guidelines in support of the new truth-in-sentencing law. Truthin-sentencing was intended to establish judicial guidelines providing some flexibility based on the type of crime and mitigating circumstances. It was a modification of mandatory sentencing that ensured appropriate punishment but allowed some judicial discretion. One of the commission’s recommendations was increased use of intermediate sanctions, particularly for drug offenses. Rather than imprisoning all drug offenders, a judge had discretion to instead impose sanctions, ranging from weekly check-in with probation to 24-hour restriction in a facility such as a halfway house. That year the Department of Justice awarded the Boston Police Department a $2 million grant targeting drugs and violence in the city. The grant included funding for a


11 district-level drug court, which was initiated in June 1995. The pilot program handled cases in Dorchester District Court and was housed on the grounds of the former Boston Specialty and Rehab Hospital in Mattapan. It was the first in New England. Robert P. Ziemian, then a West Roxbury District judge, presided over the first drug court. Ziemian is zealous on the topic of illicit drugs. He views substance abuse as the root of many crimes and thus deserving of special attention. He says this attitude came out of his experience as a district attorney and strengthened when he became a judge. “Nothing else worked,” says Ziemian of the drug court program. “Even probation with rehab didn’t work.” Seventeen drug courts now operate in Massachusetts. Roxbury’s was established in 1999.

ROXBURY Roxbury is one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1630 by Puritan immigrants. Throughout the 18th century, the area economy grew. Roxbury became an industrial center by the early 19th century. In 1868 it was incorporated into the city of Boston. After World War II, blacks migrated to Roxbury from the South seeking to fulfill their dreams of a suburban lifestyle. This increase in black residents led to the phenomenon wryly referred to as “white flight” – the movement of white residents out of a neighborhood when minority population increases. Between 1950 and 1960 the white population in Roxbury dropped just shy of 30 percentage points.


12 Roxbury now has the highest black population of any neighborhood in Boston, and the second highest Hispanic population. The 2000 census reports the area as 67 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. The per capita income of Roxbury residents is $14,500. Twenty-one percent of families earn an annual income below $15,000. During the 1960s and 1970s, Roxbury experienced the turmoil that beset cities across the nation. Tension over social issues grew. Residents rioted when school busing was federally mandated in 1975. In the 1980s, against the backdrop of buildings left in disrepair by absentee landlords, unrest, violence and crime became associated with Roxbury. Burning buildings were a frequent sight, often set by property owners seeking to trade a loss in property value for an insurance settlement. At that time a grass roots coalition formed. In 1984 the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community-based organization, was formed to address these issues. They sued the city and achieved a milestone by gaining eminent domain over undeveloped land in Roxbury. Soon thereafter, the Boston Redevelopment Authority began a concentrated effort to address Roxbury’s key issues: economic development, transportation, housing, and community cultural awareness. Those efforts continue. The Roxbury District Courthouse is in one of the neighborhood’s busiest sections. The area around Dudley Station ranks among the most urban in Boston. People crowd the sidewalks: women pushing strollers, young men looking furtively down the street, school kids laughing and pushing each other. The air carries the smell of hot fries and greasy pizza from Stash’s Grille. The historic Dartmouth Hotel stands empty and boarded up, awaiting renovation.


13 Murals depicting black history cover the walls on Washington Street. A few blocks down Washington Street stands Aga’s Highland Tap, a bar that community advocates allege is an illegal strip club and neighborhood disgrace. (Aga’s management denies this claim.) Across the street from Aga’s, a group of noisy men congregates outside Simon’s Liquor Store. Outside the B-2 District Police office is a stairway of broken and crumbling concrete. At the top of these stairs stands the courthouse. Trees and benches out front give it a park-like atmosphere. Probation officers, attorneys and court officers stand near the entryway smoking cigarettes. On the second floor, above the entrance, large panes of glass offer a view of the area in front of the building. The courtrooms are on that floor. Drug court is usually held in the courtroom known as the first session. When logistical issues necessitate a move, staff and probationers expectantly wait in the hallways for confirmation. Eventually a court officer pages overhead. “Attention please. All parties with business in drug court please report to session __.” Parties with business in drug court file in, holding the door open for those behind them, doffing their hats, turning off their cell phones, scanning the room, taking a seat. Each offender steps to the podium, facing the judge, for case evaluation. The probation officer provides a verbal report and written comments from treatment providers and the offenders themselves. The judge reviews these and announces recommendations. “Good stuff,” said probationer Sean Matthews when Judge Anderson moved Henry Caribe to phase III.


14 Everyone applauded – offenders, treatment team, court clerk, court officers. Applause sets drug court apart. It impresses those new to the court. It inspires some. It baffles others. “This is the corniest thing I’ve ever seen. They clap in the court?” Lanard Suttles whispered to his buddies. He was not enrolled in drug court but came to see what his roommates at the Salvation Army shelter had been talking about. Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan was sitting in for Judge Anderson. “She sounds like a [expletive] counselor – is she a real judge?” After the court session, however, Suttles was not so critical. He thought drug court might be a good idea. “Anything is better than jail,” he said. He reported that he was facing a five-year sentence himself but hoped to plea bargain it down. “Every time I see a judge it’s like, no bail, send him away, send him away,” he said. “Every time you come back to court they say no bail, bye. No program. “Drug court is a good thing. I hope they continue to have it.” The courtroom sometimes has the atmosphere of a church, with “amen” and “mmm hm” issuing quietly from the benches. To reward landmarks in the program, or just to acknowledge progress and to motivate, Anderson affixes a star sticker to probationers’ calendar of court appearances. They have a choice: red, blue, silver, green or gold. Norman Jenkins, 45, earned a star. He shifted forward in his seat in anticipation of his name coming next in the alphabetical docket. “Jenkins,” the clerk called out.


15 “Probation. Defendant approaching,” announced probation officer Sarah Cohen. As each is called to the podium, the PO calls out “probation” or “custody” to indicate a client’s status. Jenkins rose from his seat, dignified, and walked toward the podium with a rolling gait. He walks on a prosthetic leg, having suffered an amputation following a gunshot injury. “Mr. Jenkins, how are you today?” asked Anderson. “I’m doing good, judge, how are you?” Cohen summarized Jenkins’ progress. “As usual, Mr. Jenkins reports to probation with no new arrests, etc.,” Cohen told the judge, who fiddled with the long-armed mike on the bench, turning it back and forth. Jenkins’ treatment supervisor, Walter Bailey of the Salvation Army shelter in Cambridge, forwarded a positive written report. Jenkins’ own written comments on his recovery program were upbeat and insightful. “Well, Mr. Jenkins, you’ve earned yourself another star. Good work,” said Anderson, looking over the tops of his bifocals and nodding from the bench. He asked what color star Jenkins wanted. He dispensed an encouraging smile. “Blue will be fine, sir,” Jenkins said without breaking his composure. Jenkins passed his calendar to Cohen. She handed it to the judge for the star. Jenkins turned around. There was a ghost of a smile on his face. The courtroom crowd applauded. The clerk called out the next name.


16 Across the courtroom other offenders awaited their turn before the judge. Some wore sweatpants, football jerseys and headbands. Some wore ill-fitting suits, the hems of their sleeves hanging below the wrist. They intently watched each offender walk to the podium to face the judge. Some leaned forward over the bench in front of them; some leaned back, stretching their arms over the back of the bench. Some bit their nails. One day, court was held in the fourth session, a room so small probationers who arrived late had to line up against the wall. Judge Dennis J. Curran presided in Judge Anderson’s place. Curran told the crowd that both the president and the vice president of the United States are recovering alcoholics. The probationers nodded without confidence. It was an unusual attempt to motivate, not the kind they were used to hearing. Assistant Chief Probation Officer Mazzapica ran in and out of the courtroom, face flushed and hair flying over his forehead. “Urine screen? Urine screen?” he asked clients leaving the courtroom. He sounded like a vendor hawking body fluids. On a wooden bench outside the room sat a Hispanic woman with eyebrows penciled high on her forehead. Her son is in drug court, she said. He was just hanging around with the wrong crowd – he spent six years in prison, but he still went back to that same crowd. As she talked, probationers filed out of the courtroom like ducks in a row, following Mazzapica upstairs to give urine samples.


17 When a probationer expresses frustration or anger or seems to get less than a fair chance, silence falls. Gilberto Perez was brought out from custody, wearing a bright orange prison jump suit. He was slated to enter the Salvation Army’s halfway house, but couldn’t be released to the program because the intake staffer was ill. Perez and public defender Guy Sanderson both addressed the court to plead for placement instead of another week in jail. “I’m doing everything they asked me to do,” said Perez, clearly exasperated. The judge agreed to try to secure him entrance into a residential program before the end of the week. The court officer opened the door to the holding area, and Perez shuffled back in. Offenders in custody sat in the dock. Through the Plexiglas they looked like a row of bobbing heads. One handcuffed offender blew her PO a kiss. The benches squeaked as people shifted their weight. The court officers mumbled on the phone. The door to the holding area opened and shut as public defender and bailiff entered and exited. Papers were shuffled all over court. One day in court someone in a far right bench sneezed and passed gas simultaneously. Muted laughter rippled throughout the room. Even Anderson struggled to suppress a smile. On that June day everyone seemed giddy.

Juan Vargas I was pretty much screwing around out here, getting into some type of trouble on the streets. Juan Vargas, 20, says he’s been thrown out of residential treatment twice for breaking rules against relationships among residents. He can’t stay away from the ladies.


18 He sits at a table in the Roxbury branch of the Boston Public Library, a husky Hispanic man with full eyebrows and big dark eyes. He hugs the space in front of him on the wood-colored Formica table. He speaks quietly. Vargas’ self-report describes a troubled young man whose inner turmoil drove him to sell and use drugs. It’s a classic recovery story. Making money was also a big motivator. He says he sold to buy drugs but he also just liked having money in his pocket. He mentions liquor, marijuana and cocaine as his substances of choice. Vargas was placed in the Salvation Army’s shelter – his third residential placement since entering drug court. Their program frustrated him. He felt they weren’t providing him the counseling he needed to address lingering issues. “I needed therapy and counseling ‘cause of my childhood trauma. I wasn’t really getting any help in there,” he says. He didn’t take well to the Salvation Army’s integration of religion into their rehab program. “They’re pushing Christianity on guys that grew up in Roxbury, who went to jail for half of their lives, sold drugs for half of their lives and got high for most of their lives, you know, and the first thing you do is teach them Christianity, it’s not going to work,” he says. “I just left – I packed my stuff up and bounced, ‘cause it was getting hectic in there.” When Vargas appeared in court after leaving the Salvation Army, Anderson ordered him into custody immediately upon his case being called. Vargas stepped to the podium and was led to the dock by a court officer. Another probationer picked up Vargas’ heavy backpack and gave it to the court officer for safekeeping.


19 Probation reported that Vargas had violated his drug term program. Not only had he left the Salvation Army, PO Sara Cohen had reports of Vargas committing other violations such as being seen with a friend they considered a bad influence. “Gee, it was only like three or four weeks ago you were getting good reports,” said Anderson. Vargas leaned his forehead against the Plexiglas, incredulous, eyes wide, mouth open slightly. Anderson chided him. “You may wind up doing your time. But I know you can do this – I've seen you do it,” said Anderson. Cohen told the judge that Vargas made a good choice by checking himself into a shelter in the Davis Square area of Somerville. Like Singleton, Vargas sought an alternative program to the one he left, risking sanctions but demonstrating to the drug court team that he was committed to staying with the program. Anderson released Vargas from custody to resume residential treatment in the new setting. The court officer returned Vargas’ backpack. Vargas is optimistic about his recovery program although he worries about temptation to return to his former lifestyle. “Selling – well yeah, I like to have money. Right now I’m not too worried about using. I’m just worried about selling, you know, ‘cause I like having money.” Vargas describes himself as the “outcast” of his family. He says he has two older sisters and a younger brother, all of whom lead drug-free, stable lives. He isn’t sure why his path veered so sharply from theirs.


20 “I lived a different lifestyle. I experienced things that they didn’t experience, you know, I did things that they didn’t do. “They was too busy doing other things, like going to school. I dropped out of school, so therefore I was out in the streets. You know, when you’re in the streets you’re bound to run into something pretty negative, you know what I’m saying? Especially in Roxbury, you know? So I was pretty much screwing around out here, getting into some type of trouble on the streets – that’s why.”

Herbert Bousseau I could maybe walk from here to the bus stop and make a bad decision. The #1 bus lurches down Massachusetts Avenue on its route from Harvard Station to Dudley Station. Herbert Bousseau sits near the rear door. He watches the John Hancock and Prudential buildings move out of sight as the bus crosses St. Botolph’s Street and heads into the South End. Bousseau takes the #1 all over. It stops near the Salvation Army shelter on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge where he stays. Its southern terminus is Dudley Station, near the Roxbury Courthouse. At Harvard Station, Bousseau transfers from the #1 to the #77 to suburban Arlington. There he attends therapeutic drug recovery sessions at the Salvation Army’s house on Wallington Street. Shuttling between Arlington, Cambridge and Roxbury is arduous, but he has no choice. He just started phase I, and when the court ordered him to residential treatment, the Salvation Army had the next available bed; the Salvation Army requires him to go to Arlington House. And every Wednesday he must attend drug court.


21 Bousseau, a 28-year-old black man, sits at the head of a table near the windows on the Arlington House’s second floor. He speaks quietly and often stares out the window at the tree-lined street. His long, narrow face rarely changes expression. His mouth tends to hang open between sentences. He rarely looks up when he talks. It’s as though he’s talking to the trees. Bousseau says he was doing well in a residential setting like the Salvation Army six months before starting drug court, but resumed heroin use before finishing. His relapse violated his probation terms, and the judge offered him drug court as an alternative to the prison term mandated by the violation. Bousseau’s enthusiasm for drug court is lukewarm. “Right now I’m just doing this to stay out of jail. Hopefully it’ll rub off on me and my opinion about things will change. That’s what I pray for,” he says. He’s happy at the Arlington House. He describes it as “really clean,” in contrast to the Salvation Army halfway house, which he complains is not well kept by transient residents with whom he shares bathroom and kitchen quarters. Arlington House is a three-story house on a quiet block in the Pleasant Street Historic District of Arlington. When Bousseau takes the #77 down Massachusetts Avenue to get there, he passes streets with quaint Anglo-Saxon names like Gladstone, Churchill, and Windsor. In the Broadway Historic District, banners “Celebrating Diversity” dot the median. Bousseau reports a lengthy criminal history. He says he served a year for firearms possession. He has a thick scar on his neck where, he says, he underwent surgery after being shot.


22 “I’ve been shot like three different times. And I’ve been ran over by a car purposely due to gang activities,” Bousseau says. He says hanging out in Roxbury led him to drug use. He picked up heroin out of curiosity, and because it eased the physical pain caused by his many gunshot wounds. Most of all, though, he refers to his “addictive nature” as the driver behind his relapses. “I could maybe walk from here to the bus stop and make a bad decision,” he says. At his second court appearance after entering the drug court program, Bousseau forgot the written report from the halfway house that probationers must bring to court appearances. He checked every pocket three times. He looked at the floor and didn’t find it. He looked at the floor again. He looked toward the table where the probation officers sit. He sat back down. He looked anxious. After a few minutes he beckoned Sara Cohen. In a low voice he told her that he had forgotten the paper. No problem, she said, but her face was stern. When Bousseau took his turn at the podium, the judge reprimanded him for not having the report. Failing to provide the report was a serious matter, Anderson told him, but he would let it go this time. Cohen is now a key figure in Bousseau’s life. “She can put me in jail. You know? She can take my freedom away from me,” he says. “It’s the judge’s decision but they usually go with the probation officer.” Bousseau has only two choices – ensure that Cohen considers him compliant and eager, or serve his prison sentence. Bousseau is ambivalent about Cohen and her colleagues. He is wary of probation officers to start with and finds it hard to warm up to Cohen.


23 “She’s a good person but there’s something about authority and the titles that I just don’t like. I’m not there yet, you know? They’re people and they can be just as conniving as criminals – they lie just like anybody else.” When Bousseau got his first star in drug court, Anderson asked him to choose a color. “Gold,” he said, and smiled for no more than 15 seconds. It was a warm September day, but Bousseau wore a sweat jacket and sweat pants. After receiving his star Bousseau sat waiting to be escorted to the lab to have his urine test. He waited, looking around the room, jiggling his leg.

DOES IT WORK? Bobby Crews, who appears to be in his 60s, has struggled for months to meet standards the Roxbury Court has set for him. If he does not succeed, he faces a two-year prison sentence. He has repeatedly cited medical problems as an obstacle to full engagement in the program. During one session Anderson told Crews that physical illness was not a reason to ignore substance abuse issues. “In my eyes it is,” said Crews. “You’ve been having your head down in your hands a lot. You seem to be kind of stuck,” said Anderson. He sent Crews for a urine screen. Crews returned from the lab and sat back down. He stared out the window. He frowned. His face was haggard. His small frame slumped. Critics say the drug court model is not always the answer. Rather than providing the benefit of rehab, some say, drug court sacrifices basic legal rights in order to compel


24 an offender to receive therapy. The judge functions as a sort of health care provider, and bases his decisions on the team report made in the pre-court meeting, at which the offender is not, of course, present. In some courts offenders must waive their right to a trial in order to enter drug court, although that is not the case in Roxbury. Based on their progress and the structure of a given program, offenders may actually spend more time involved with the criminal justice system through drug court than they would if they opted for their prison term. James L. Nolan, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Williams College and author of “Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement.” He questions the value of a system that replaces the traditional concept of guilt with the idea that crime is the result of illness. A drug court session, says Nolan, is “theater,” with offenders and team members playing well-defined roles. To succeed, the offender is expected to give open testimony in support of basic underlying themes: recovery is a struggle but anyone can do it if they just try hard enough; they never would have committed crimes had it not been for drugs; and similar archetypal stories. It’s true that the drug court model necessarily alters the mechanism of traditional court proceedings. The judge acts less as a dispassionate dispenser of justice and more like a therapist. Drug court’s non-adversarial nature alters the public defender’s function, potentially creating a conflict between his sworn role as a “zealous advocate” for his client and the role the drug court program defines for him. Critics frequently point to this as a major flaw in the concept. On the other hand, supporters of the treatment model argue that it’s superior to the punitive model of justice, which they say does nothing to break an inevitable cycle of


25 drug addiction and related crime. Supporters argue that drug courts offer recovery and treatment to people who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t make the attempt. Proponents also tout drug court as an effective means to reduce prison overcrowding, and assert that it saves taxpayers money because it costs less per prisoner than incarceration. Quantitative measures of drug court’s effectiveness in combating recidivism are not easy to come by. Most measures of drug court’s success point to low repeat arrest rates among drug court graduates. However, while it’s tempting to compare re-arrest rates of drug court participants with those of offenders adjudicated traditionally, there are flaws in these comparisons. For example, many drug court programs only enroll offenders with minimal risk of re-offending to start with. Studies so far have been unable to accurately gauge drug court’s impact on recidivism, or to compare its success with the criminal population at large. There are too many variables and no control groups. To many observers, graduation ceremonies, which highlight participants’ struggle and success, are the best measure of how well drug court works. For many people both inside and outside the drug court system, such stories of triumph matter more than dry statistical data – and perhaps they are indeed at the heart of what drug court attempts to do. A study by Sara Steen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, concluded that, no matter what their attitude or motivation at the start, success in drug court depends on offenders’ personal investment in the program. Essentially, to make it through the program offenders have to walk the walk and talk the talk.


26

Norman Jenkins This is my first drug court program. I’m thankful that they have it today. Norman Jenkins, 45, sits at a table in the Salvation Army gym in Cambridge. As he talks, a television mounted high above the room blares afternoon re-runs: “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue.” A crude painting of Jesus ministering to a group of children hangs on the wall. Other shelter residents pass through the gym, occasionally bursting into loud conversation and laughter – the banter of middle-aged guys who’ve spent years shuttling between rented rooms and the street. Jenkins is oblivious to the noise. He sits at the cafeteria-style table staring ahead, telling his story in a monotone. He makes minimal eye contact. Occasionally he holds his hands to the sides of his head, as though needing to keep it straight. His eyes narrow as he talks, but his lashes are curled, softening his face. He is a black man with a faint mustache and straightened, slicked-back hair. In court his bald spot gleams with the reflected light of overhead fluorescents. He says he arrived at the Salvation Army after a month in the state prison at Concord. Jenkins discusses his program in a practiced manner, interweaving lines from 12step programs with praise for the Salvation Army’s rehab director. “My director’s name is Walter Bailey, an experienced substance abuse counselor and director…A program’s a program, but the programs only look good as the director – he’s the one who controls the criteria of the program, gives us proper guidance so we can have information to counteract our old thoughts, beliefs and behaviors,” says Jenkins.


27 Drug court is everything to Jenkins, and it has rewarded him. His months of sobriety cheer him. He has made faster progress, earning more stars, than most drug court probationers. He has made it clear he is serious about changing a life that until his drug court enrollment was driven by a regular cycle of drug use and jail time. He says he started using illicit drugs when he was 9 – alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and ultimately heroin. His addiction was supported by crime and he views the two as inextricably connected. He talks about losing his leg after a gunshot wound he received in retaliation for his brother’s crime. “They shot me in my leg for a message to him and I lost my left leg and it was all over drugs,” he says. “A sensible person would have stopped in a situation like that but that just shows you how this disease controls you. Ultimately you need some help.” Jenkins has his own style. He’s old school. He wears straw boaters tilted to the side, silky shirts unbuttoned to the third button, heavy gold chains and heavy gold rings. On the bus he runs into a couple cronies from back in the day. For all the street bluster and vulgarity he shares with them, you’d never know Jenkins has left their world. He didn’t just leave it; he left running. “Once they made a decision of drug court, before I even got out of the courthouse I knew that I was going to do this to the best of my ability. The judge gave me an hour to be at the facility that they chose for me. I think I was there in half an hour. I didn’t stop.” Drug court probationer Aaron Carter died of an overdose last Easter. Jenkins knew Carter well; they grew up together in Roxbury.


28 At the first drug court session after Carter’s death, Judge Anderson called for a moment of silence. The probationers – three dozen or so convicted criminals – bowed their heads. Standing, Anderson addressed the court. “You’re not here just to please your probation officer or to get the criminal justice system off your back,” he said. “You’re here fighting for your lives.” The slats of vertical blinds clattered in the wind through an open window. The Prudential building was visible through the window, rising from Boylston Street into an April sky.

Jenkins: “I feel like I’m growing and I’m changing every day and I look forward to drug court because it’s part of my recovery, and it shows me the consequences also of not truly wanting to recover.” Bousseau: “Drug court? One thing about me, when I do something I know I have to do, most of the time I do it just to get it out of the way. This time I’m trying to learn something different, and I’m doing it because I know that I can’t keep living like this. I mean, a lot of people are surprised that I’m still alive, you know?” Vargas: “My addiction, I think, is not using the drugs, or the obsession of having money – my obsession is the way I think and feel. That’s what I’ve got to change or I’m never going to become a new person. I might be a new person on the outside, but if I don’t change the way I think and feel about myself, it’s only a matter of time before I go back out there and pick up drugs.”


29 Singleton: “I think when you come from out of that door and you walk into the dock, behind the glass, I think that God is telling you hey, you need to be saved. This is My way of telling you that you can live life sober – not saying that all of us want to when we’re behind that glass, but when you get there it’s kind of like the last stop on the train, you know? It’s either that or you go do your time.”

Profile for Ruth Nasrullah

Redemption: Drug Court Stories  

Capstone project for my masters degree; profiles of four drug offenders going through the Roxbury drug court system

Redemption: Drug Court Stories  

Capstone project for my masters degree; profiles of four drug offenders going through the Roxbury drug court system

Advertisement