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US judges – involved or aloof?

Penelope Gibbs
11 Jun 2014

This morning in Washington DC I observed a very busy drugs court.  The judge, Gregory Jackson, runs the drugs court every day.  He knows the providers of substance abuse services, the prosecutor and the public defender.  He understands all the different drugs and the toxicology tests.  The drugs court in DC is a diversionary court.  The judge doesn’t know and isn’t interested in the offences of those before him.  Others screen offenders for their suitability for the drugs court.  All the judge is interested in is whether offenders complete the drugs treatment programme.  Its pretty tough, with residential treatment for the most serious, frequent random drugs tests for all, and attendance at groups and one-to-one appointments.  Compliance is about keeping clean.  I got the impression that this, and honesty about relapses was the most important aspect.  If the programme is completed, the case is dismissed and the offender has no criminal record for whatever offences brought them into the drugs court.  The judge does little traditional judging, but does decide whether to give an offender another chance, or the benefit of the doubt.  He celebrates those who do well and presides over a graduation every week for those who have completed the programme.  I saw a judge totally engaged in and committed to getting offenders off drugs.  Every morning, Judge Jackson met with prosecution, defence, toxicologist and drug treatment staff to discuss the pending cases.  The meeting was collaborative.  Nothing said in the meeting tied the hands of the judge, but they did share information and agree a starting point for later discussion.  There is a question mark for me as to whether drugs courts are best suited to the US context.  But what today’s experience really showed was that judges could be very involved with agencies and work with all practitioners in a team, without losing their gravitas or ability to exercise independent judgement.