TOPICS > Politics

Truth Or Consequences

February 16, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JUDGE WILLIAMS MEYER: In the case of the state of Colorado versus Tyrone Reece…

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Tyrone Reece is a drug addict. He’s addicted to crack cocaine. It’s cost him custody of his children . . . A steady job and his self respect.

JUDGE MEYER: Mr. Reece I understand that now you’ve got a job? Where will you be working?

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: But things just might turn around now for the 30 year old father of two because he’s in the hands of Denver’s year-old drug court where drug addiction is assressed head on as well as the crime it drives.

JUDGE MEYER: The middle 80’s the DA’s office filed about 400 drug cases. This year 1995, the Denver drug court will handle two thousand felony drug cases.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Presiding Judge Williams Meyer says before drug court most non violent offenders cycled in and out of the criminal justice system because no one dealt with the drug addiction that landed them there in the first place.

JUDGE MEYER: They’s be placed on probation. They wouldn’t succeed on probation. . .then end up in intensive supervision probation. Fail there and move to community corrections and then eventually into the Department of Corrections.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Drug court takes more comprehensive approach. Before offenders appear before the judge a counselor evaluates their criminal history and drug addiction. Then the court puts them in prison or on probation, but 90% of the cases, the offender will be treated for drugs and the judge will monitor the case closely. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter likes this approach.

BILL RITTER, Denver District Attorney: What we’re doing is taking a bunch of people who get probation and instead of giving them probation and saying goodbye until they relapse we’re telling them we’re going to visit you or your going to visit us on a weekly basis and then at a later period you’ll come in twice a month. But we’re going to watch you and every time you fail there will be a consequence.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Not showing up for court can result in a few nights in jail so can testing positive for drugs or missing a counseling session. As offenses stack up — so do the penalties. Meyer says punishment is immediate.

JUDGE MEYER: I’ll put ’em in jail for a couple of days for a relapse, and they come back to me and I see they have an absolutely clean record for a long period of time. And I say, “I got your attention, didn’t I ?” And they say, “you sure did.”

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Eleven percent of court defendants – mostly big- time pushers with long arrest records – are sent to prison. But non violent, first-time offenders are given a chance to turn their lives around. Almost half of all drug court defendants are given deferred judgements. Denver Public Defender Charles Garcia says that means if offenders successfully complete the program — usually within a year — their cases are closed.

CHARLES GARCIA, Denver Public Defender: You never have a felony conviction on your record, If you go to apply for a number of jobs, I mean , I think of the jobs people apply for – if they have to fill out an application, ask you the question — have you ever been convicted of a felony and the answer in then no.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: In some cases, deffered judgement has worked. At drug court’s first graduation ceremony, more than 20 individuals walked out of the court for what they hoped was the last time.

SHANTELL HOPKINS: I want to thank the judge . . .

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Shantell Hopkins — a mother of two young girls — had been arrested in November for possession of cocaine. It was her first felony arrest. But not the first time Hopkins had used drugs. She has been battling a seven year addiction.

MS. HOPKINS: I asked Judge Meyers to send me to a treatment program. And within that program, the program has taught me to know who the real Shantell is again. You know, to let me get in touch with myself. It has shown me the way to know myself. It made me think about my kids, you know, they need me now.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Not everyone succeeds, however. . . 22 percent of defendants fail at one time or another to appear for court. Four months after his first appearance before Judge Meyer. Tyrone Reece didn’t show up for a routine progress report. Judge Meyer issued a warrent for Reece’s arrest. After spending the night in jail, a rumpled, tired Reece appeared before Judge Meyer.

JUDGE MEYER: Mr. Reece you failed to appear for your fifth review on November 14th. Do you want to tell me what the deal was?

MR. REECE: My daughter got sick a few days before.

JUDGE MEYER: I guess I don’t understand why your daughter being in the hospital is any reason for you not to show up in court or letting us know whether we need to reschedule a court date. You didn’t do anything.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Reece — homeless and destitute — asked the judge to place him in a drug treatment program run by the Salvation Army.

JUDGE MEYER: Mr. Reece you go through periods where you do really well, and then you fall off the wagon and disappear. Why do you think the Salvation Army is going to work for you?

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Two hours after his court appearance Reece entered the Salvation Army drug treatment program. For thirty days, Reece had contact with no one, including his family. The court requires drug treatment providers to update judge meyer on the progress of defendants. If an offender tests positive for cocaine or heroine. The judge learns of the results within 24 hours.

JUDGE MEYER: I have a computer on my desk. I pull up their treatment record and they can not shine me off on how they’re doing in treatment because I have the actual facts in front of me.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Eugene Strauber says the court must be prepared for setbacks because not all defendants are matched to th eproper drug treatment program the first time. Strauber heads Cenilor, an in-patient program that specializes in treating hard core drug users.

EUGENE STRAUBER, counselor: People are not always going to comply with the treatment plan that they commit to as part of their sentence, and I think the biggest challenge will be how to deal with that. Do you just bring the person back and send them to jail to do whatever time they were going to originally get? Or do you try something else in lieu of it?

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Tyrone Reece is a good example. The Salvation Army drug treatment program had no impact on him. Denver police arrested him for drug possession and peddling a day after he left the program. Reece was charged with two felonies. He recalls facing an angry Judge Meyer.

MR. REECE: When I first walked in, the only thing he said to me was, “Mr. Reece, I don’t want to hear nothing from you. And I said — but your honor. . He said, “Nothing!”

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Meyer placed Reece in a community corrections program called peer one. The highly-structured program provides intensive, in-patient drug treatment. If reece fails here, the he will go to prison. For the first time, Reece says he’s being held accountable for his actions. Peer one counselors and other recovering addicts confront Reece daily in group sessions.

MR. REECE: I take breaks.

COUNSELOR: Yeah, you take a lot of them. You’re lazy, aren’t you?

MR. REECE: I’ll own up to that one. I am a lazy person. I am working on it.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Reece seems to be responding to treatment, according to Public Defender Garcia. When Tyrone was in court the other day, the judge talked to him. The judge was smiling and laughing with him, because he’s doing do well. The district attorney shook his hand and congratulated him. I said to him, “You’re getting fat, Tyrone.” And he said, “Mr. Garcia, I’m just getting healthy.”

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: But not everyone is convinced specialized sourts will put a dent in the country’s drug problem. John Walters served briefly as acting Drug Czar during the Bush Administration.

JOHN WALTERS, former Drug Czar: Drug courts are percieved as the solution to drug-related crime and addiction. They’re not. Because drug related crime, the largest chunk, is repeat offenses and violent offenses. They’re not a good means for treating long term hard-core addicts.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: Walters says drug courts have been “oversold.”

MR. WALTERS: The dangerouse attraction to drug courts is that they are a cheap, easy solution to the problem with drugs and crime. And they are neither cheap when done right, nor are they easy.

BETTY ANNE BOWSER: In 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno awarded denver drug court four hundred thousand dollars. In the 1996 budget, president Clinton requested 150-million dollars in the 1996 budget to help support the more than 40 drug courts around the country. While the concept of drug court has bipartisan support, Congress would like to see its funding become part of overall law enforcement block grants. States then can decide whether they want to spend a portion of that money for local drug courts. Since Denver drug court is now operating at twice its capacity and handles nearly half of the felony caseload in the city, Judge Meyer is concerned about any possible loss of funds. He has prepared data that he hopes will persuade the legislature to provide state funding that he hopes will ensure the future of his court, no matter what actions are taken on the national level.