Judges as social workers

A trend toward specialty courts aims to change lifestyles.

Posted: June 12, 2007

Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O'Neill at times seemed more social worker than jurist. He had Wawa cash cards and handshakes for defendants on the right track, and planned a ceremony to mark the first graduation from the year-old Drug Court.

But his mood turned dark Thursday as he chided those who had faltered, and he made it clear that serious infractions would be a ticket to prison.

"You're in a treatment program - a really rough treatment that, for a guy like you, has a chance of saving your life," O'Neill admonished one nervous defendant who had missed therapy because of his girlfriend's illness. "Get back with the program."

Across the nation, similar scenes are playing out regularly as more judges embrace the concept of specialized courts, where the idea is to mix punishment with treatment in cases where criminal behavior is the result of addiction or mental-health problems.

Philadelphia - while perhaps better known for the old Eagles Court for unruly fans - has a range of special courts. There are a drug court, a truancy court, a treatment court for juveniles, a domestic-violence misdemeanor court, a "community court" for nuisance crimes, a gun court that emphasizes anger-management treatment, and, starting just last week, a DUI court. A mental-health court is being explored.

The region's counties also have begun to embrace the concept. Chester County has had a drug court since 1997, Delaware County is contemplating one, and Bucks County is mulling a hybrid court that would handle drug and DUI defendants and perhaps defendants with mental-health issues. Montgomery County's drug court began last year.

"Treatment courts are the rage now," said Bucks County Court Administrator Douglas R. Praul, adding that officials are still in the talking stage of how to proceed.

New Jersey has 24 drug courts, and there is a tax court. While there are landlord-tenant dockets in some places, and there has been talk about mental-health courts, the state has not otherwise embraced the idea of specialized courts. "We think it's a mistake to go into too much area of specialty," said courts spokeswoman Winnie Comfort, who added that the state shifted away from more fragmented courts after its 1947 re-examination of the judicial system.

Karen Blackburn, coordinator of Pennsylvania problem-solving courts, said that across the state, there are 17 adult and seven juvenile drug courts, six DUI courts, five mental-health courts, and one for juveniles. Lancaster County even has a job court, intended to apply judicial encouragement for offenders to get - and keep - jobs.

Legal scholars say the trend toward specialized courts - known as "therapeutic jurisprudence" - is the result of the success of drug-treatment courts, which now number about 2,000 nationwide after starting in Florida in the late 1980s.

University of Miami law professor Bruce J. Winick called it a "sea change in the role of the courts." The notion of mixing treatment in with punishment, he said, was born of judges' frustration with defendants who would not be criminals but for their addictions.

"What was going on in the criminal-justice system really wasn't working," said Philadelphia Municipal Court President Judge Louis J. Presenza, who has been instrumental in setting up the city's treatment courts.

He said 77 percent of the offenders who enter Drug Court graduate, and about 91 percent of the graduates have remained conviction-free - and presumably drug-free - during the first year after graduation.

The treatment court, he said, has been his most rewarding venture as a judge. "The reward is when you see people graduate and they tell you how you changed their life," Presenza said.

Taking on a role more akin to social worker or probation officer, judges typically meet regularly with specially selected offenders. They oversee a team of probation officers, therapists, prosecutors and public defenders who intensely supervise defendants through frequent urine tests, therapy, and drug-and-alcohol treatment.

"This isn't a hug-a-thug court," O'Neill, the Montgomery County judge, said after Thursday night's session during which 19 offenders came in for his prodding questions.

Nathan Schadler, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County who handles drug-court cases, said violent criminals and drug dealers are not eligible for the program.

"The focus is on changing a person's lifestyle," said Schadler, who also said he had no problem with the social-work aspect of the judge's role as long as the courts "understand there's evil out there, and those people cannot be getting into drug courts."

Winick said the judge may be the first authority figure to ever pay such close attention to many offenders. "There's magic in those black judicial robes," he said. "That seems to make a real difference."

Willie Rodriguez, 44, of Northeast Philadelphia, figures he would be dead or in prison if not for Philadelphia's Drug Court. And he credits Presenza with keeping him straight and focused.

"By all rights, I should be dead," said the former heroin addict, who had served time for drugs and was facing a long prison sentence when he was accepted into the program.

"Treatment Court was a blessing," said Rodriguez, who has been drug-free for eight years and is now director of the Fresh Start Casa Latina drug program in Kensington.

O'Neill said there are about 50 to 60 participants in the Montgomery County program; an additional 10 or 12 were expelled, and one was arrested on a new charge.

The program is based on rewards for good behavior and sanctions for violations. On Thursday night, O'Neill ordered four defendants to report for community-service work for missing therapy sessions, and chided a fifth for failing to properly submit required paperwork.

But the judge also heaped praise upon those who were doing well. He gave a keychain to a woman marking six months in the program and $5 or $10 Wawa cash cards to two others who were on the right track.

Hang in there, he told one young man, because completing the program "will be an accomplishment like nothing you've ever accomplished in your life."

And then O'Neill got down from the bench, his black robes flowing, and pulled out a Wawa card.

The two shook hands.

The courtroom filled with applause.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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