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Therapeutic jurisprudence in action – the Baltimore drug court

Penelope Gibbs
21 Jun 2014
In the short time I’ve been in USA I have seen some amazing judges.  Or maybe judges allowed by the specialist court model to be amazing.  Judge Jamey Hueston set up the drug court in Baltimore 20 years ago.  It is was the fifth in the whole USA.  Jamey started off as a drugs case prosecutor but was always interested in the harm drugs did to poor communities.  Soon after she became a judge, she set up the new drug court, which is now established in Baltimore, as it is in many other US states.

Jamey is passionate not just about the drug court, but about therapeutic jurisprudence – a holistic model of judging which focuses on meeting the therapeutic needs of offenders.  The drug court I observed was absolutely collaborative, with everybody in the court room willing the offenders to get clean.  Most of the offenders have been on drugs for many years, so breaking a way of life is hard.  Even the bailiff (security guard) in the court gives pep talks to offenders who are downcast.  Any “client” who has done well since their last drug court appearance is marked on the blackboard as getting into the A team and the team claps. “Clients” early in their programme have to sit in court throughout the half day session to learn from the others who appear before the court and provide a supportive audience for those who have done well.  Relapses are tolerated as they are learning drug-free behaviors.  They key is that “clients” are honest and communicate what is happening in their lives, for good or ill.

Judge Houston is definitely the star of the show.  Absolutely empathetic, rooting for those who do well and encouraging those who are having difficulties. She commands huge respect from court staff and the “clients”, and her praise clearly means a lot to those struggling with addiction.

She is also passionate about improving the services available to her “clients”.  She noticed that young black men often did not do as well on the standard programmes as others.  She heard of a new programme focussed on young adults with addiction problems, tried hard to make Baltimore a pilot for the programme and, when that failed, manoevered to get the resources to try it in Baltimore.

Judge Hueston believes that a more therapeutic, holistic approach to addressing drug-driven criminal behaviour really works – and there is a growing body of evidence to prove it. It’s also clear that if she gets an idea for improvement in the system, she has quite a good chance of implementing it.  I can’t help but think this is a far cry from the situation in England and Wales.