Special Courts in Washington, D.C. DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  The program today is on special courts, and we have two extraordinarily honorable individuals today to talk about special courts within the District of Columbia.  We have the Honorable Judge Milton Lee, Jr., of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and the Honorable Judge Melvin Wright, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  There’s a variety of special courts within the Superior Court system here in the District of Columbia.  There are quite a few of them, and you know, special courts have been in the news a lot lately.  We have the Center for Court Innovation talking about community courts, putting out a new film recently, and the Justice Policy Institute, they put out a new report talking about drug courts widening the net of the criminal justice system when they should be a public health issue, so special courts is in the news, and there are a lot of them in the superior court, and to Judge Lee and Judge Wright, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Milton Lee, Jr:  Thank you very much for having us.

Len Sipes:  Okay, Judge Lee, there are special courts in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia.  Please describe them.

Milton Lee, Jr:  I think we’re at a total right now of nine specialty or treatment model courts.  We started with a drug court back in the 90s, we now have community courts on both the U.S. side and wards 6 and 7, we have a DC traffic community court as well, we’ve got the new housing conditions court, we have a prostitute and John court, juvenile drug court, family treatment court, we also have, what I preside over is the fathering court, and then one of the newer courts that we have, our mental health diversion courts on both the adult and the juvenile side, I think that covers the gamut.

Len Sipes:  That’s a lot of special courts.  Judge Wright, why do we have all of these courts?

Melvin Wright:  Well, part of the reason for the courts is to solve the problems that come in.  Traditionally, most of these courts were involved in prosecution, and the traditional model doesn’t always work, and so part of what community courts do is to get involved in finding out what the roots of the problem are and try to solve it with the goal of trying to keep those cases from coming before us in the first place.

Len Sipes:  I think people, when they hear of all these special courts, I’m not quite sure if all people who listen to this program understand this, but I’ve interviewed judges from around the United States, and a lot of programs, a lot of the innovation within the criminal justice system today seems to be coming from the judiciary.  There are a lot of justices, Red Hook up in Brooklyn, New York, comes to mind, where they really literally changed the face of the criminal justice system in that area in Brooklyn and dramatically reduced crime, and that was a judge led program.  Now I could rattle off another 10 or 20 programs that were judge led, but it strikes me that after my 40 years in the criminal justice system, where judges were sort of in the background, sort of only there to bring, to adjudicate cases, now a lot of judges seem to be stepping up and taking leadership roles, and that’s the sense that I’m getting from you guys in terms of the numerous special courts that you have in the Superior Court.  Who wants to take that?

Melvin Wright:  Well, I think that’s true.  One of the reasons that we started the drug court program many years ago was because of the revolving door that we saw with defendants who would come before us.  What would traditionally happen is, someone would violate a crime, speaking specifically regarding drug charges, someone would be charged with either possession or distribution of drugs, they come before the court, they would plead guilty or be found guilty, they’d be put either on probation or incarcerated, but they would never receive any treatment, and so they would get back into the same habits that got them there in the first place, and so one of the things that we thought about, and one of the reasons for the drug court program was to try to treat the individuals.  If you don’t treat someone who has a drug addicted problem, and because of budget cuts and many reasons, there wasn’t a lot of treatment going on in the jails, when they’re released from jails, they come home and fall back into the same problems that got them there in the first place, so the drug court program specifically was designed to help treat the people who had these drug addicted issues.

Len Sipes:  So the whole idea is to solve a problem, not simply to adjudicate people as they wander through the criminal justice system.  I mean, all of us who have been around for any length of time at all understand that people flow through the system.  There’s an endless, endless flow of people.  Crime is at record lows throughout the United States.  In terms, crime generally speaking, at 20 year lows according to the FBI and to the National Crime Survey, but nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be, there seems to be an endless supply of people being arrested and being processed by the courts, so unless we intervene at some level, that issue of that constant flow of people coming into the criminal justice system never stops, correct?

Milton Lee, Jr:  I think most people, if you would look at just the traditional model of processing cases, people come into the system, they figure out the guilt or innocence issue, whether it be by a plea of guilty or going to trial, and you get to that issue about what do you do at the end.  And part of what our experience has been is that we can frontload some of these services, really connect to people, give them what they need to try and solve some of these problems, and really have a different result at the end.  The idea of delaying service until there’s an adjudication is really an older model.  Treatment courts, you move it right up to the front and you hope that you solve some of those problems, and at the back end, the idea is to reduce recidivism.

Len Sipes:  Right.  The whole idea is not just to reduce recidivism, I understand your term, your use of the term recidivism, but to the public, it’s reducing crime.  The fact that these people are going to get drug treatment, get mental health treatment, they’re going to be more meaningfully involved with the treatment process, and they’re not going to commit future crimes, correct?

Milton Lee, Jr:  Absolutely, and I think when you look at the way that the courts have functioned, that’s exactly what you see.  Now we’ve started to branch out into other areas, like the new housing conditions court, where its essentially the same model, it’s a problem solving approach to what is brought to the court.

Len Sipes:  Now tell me about that.  So people are saying, okay, I understand drug court, I understand mental health court, and there are even veterans’ courts out there throughout the country, but a housing court, tell me about the hosing court and what it does.

Melvin Wright:  Well, the housing conditions calendar began because of, sort of corroboration between the court and the legislature.  There were many citizens in the District of Columbia who were complaining about the fact that they had problems with their house or apartment, and the landlords were not making repairs, and the only way that they could get the matter into court was to wait for the landlord to sue them in landlord-tenant court, and to raise those issues as a defense, and so the court took on the role of trying to create a means in which we could expedite these kinds of cases, and so what we did is we followed the model that is in landlord-tenant and small claims court, where a person can file a complaint, they don’t need to have a lawyer, and they can come before the court and explain what the situation is, and then the court can have the landlord come in, and the court can find out what the problems are, and so a tenant does not have to wait until they are sued by the landlord to come into court, they have a remedy by being able to bring their own lawsuit to have the landlord brought into court, and the judge, once having both parties in front of them, can resolve the problems.

Len Sipes:  Now Judge Wright, okay, to the average person listening to the program, they’re saying, and this means what?  We understand the concept; we understand where you’re going with that.  What does that result in, in terms of the greater good for the larger community?

Melvin Wright:  Well, if you have a problem with rodents, if you have lack of heat, if you do not have appliances that work, a stove, a refrigerator, the essentials that you need in life to survive daily, you can come into court and get those matters resolved fairly quickly, as opposed to the traditional legal model, where you would file a civil action, you would wait several months before you would even see a judge, and then the disposition of that case may take anywhere from six months to a year.  Under our system here, the design is to have it done within 90 days, and so if you don’t have heat in the wintertime, that is a life threatening event.

Len Sipes:  Which is the very essence of the concept, problem solving courts, because what you’re doing is solving problems within the community?  Am I taking this to too broad of a degree when I suggest that people move, they abandon homes, communities are hurt because these problems remain unresolved, and that what you’re doing is resolving these issues now, keeping people in their homes, satisfying both the landlord and the tenant, and that stabilizes community, and that reduces crime?

Melvin Wright:  Yes, I think that’s true, and the other benefit is that, as Judge Lee suggested, we can be more proactive instead of reactive.  The traditional model, as Judge Lee has pointed out, is one where we wait until the end before we do anything.  Under these scenarios, we can take care of them immediately, so if we have a landlord who comes in, and I have 5-10 tenants in that same building, then I know there’s a problem with that particular landlord, and we can deal with that immediately as opposed to waiting some time down the line to try to resolve the problem, so the whole idea is to get a jump on the situation before it can get out of hand, and the court has an interest in doing this, because if we can, it’s much easier to address a problem closer to the beginning than it is at the end.  Once it deteriorates, it makes it much more difficult to find solutions, and the bottom line is, is that whether it’s sentencing, or at the end of a civil action, we’re still going to have to come up with some kind of solution to the problem anyway.

Len Sipes:  Right.  So why not do it when the problem is solvable, why wait until the problem deteriorates to the point where there are no real solutions, and you’re going to have to impose, I guess, draconian levels of resolutions, why not take care of those issues up front?  And that streamlines the issue for the court and creates a better housing, a set of housing conditions for the citizens of the District of Columbia, correct?

Melvin Wright:  Correct.  So if we can get a landlord to fix the property before it becomes in such disrepair that it needs to be condemned by the city, then we’ve saved the citizens and the city an enormous amount of time and money.

Len Sipes:  Now, but again, get back to this issue of leadership within the judiciary, because again, my criminal justice training, when I started off 40 years ago, judges were unapproachable, they didn’t come to meetings, they didn’t sit down with law enforcement, corrections, parole and probation, juvenile justice, and they didn’t sit down with anybody, they basically heard cases, and you can see decade after decade after decade, judges saying, you know, I think there’s a better solution to these problems.  I think that we, within the judiciary, can be problem solvers.  I’m going to convene and get together with other parts of the criminal justice system, and we’re going to explore this issue, and we’re going to see if we can do a better job.  That seems to be happening more and more.  Am I correct?

Milton Lee, Jr:  I think you’re right 100%.  Judge Wright and I sit all day long on our calendars, and then we meet all evening long, and then during the lunch hours, and every other nook and cranny of time that we have to try to develop these partnerships, because this is not something that courts can do alone.  It can’t be done in a vacuum, and so you look at every single one of these problem solving courts, and you’ll see a number of other government and private sector entities that are the partnerships that really make it go.  You can say the court is the leader, because that’s where the court, where the case comes to, but it can’t be done without this collaborative approach.

Len Sipes:  But there does seem to be, in my mind, I mean, I was trained to view judges as those who walk on water.  I was trained to view judges on this lofty plane, put them up there on that pedestal, and whatever the judge says is fine.  You never disagree with the court.  It’s Your Honor this, and Your Honor that, and that’s how I was trained.  That’s my training, and in terms of my 40 years involvement in the criminal justice system, but I spoke to one drug court judge a couple years ago who, she said “I’m sick and tired of seeing this problem unresolved case after case, year after year, decade after decade, I took leadership because I was sick and tired of seeing the system fail and continue to fail in terms of the way that we traditionally did things.  When you have a judge do that, that takes on a special connotation for the rest of us in the criminal justice system.  I sometimes get the sense that judges carry an enormous amount of weight, and so when a judge says, I want you in this meeting, Mr. Chief of Police of Madame Chief of Police or Parole and Probation, or courts, or jails, or whoever it happens to be, those people show up, and they really do pay attention to the judge.  I think judges carry a special status within the criminal justice system.  I think the public sees it that way, I think the criminal justice system sees it that way, and I think offenders who we deal with on a day-to-day basis see it that way.  Your opinion.

Melvin Wright:  Well, I think you’re correct, and I want to second what Judge Lee said, that this is not just judges alone.  This is clearly a partnership.  Every one of those community courts that we have doesn’t work unless we have the partnership of those people who are involved.  That being said, somebody has to help with the leadership role, and because the inherent nature of our position permits us to have power, it gives us the opportunity to bring people together.  Now I always believe that the fact that you have power doesn’t mean you need to use it, and so if you can have cooperation, then there’s no need to use the power that you have.  However, when you don’t have cooperation, then you have the opportunity to exercise the power that you have.  For example, in the housing conditions calendar, if a landlord comes to me and tells me he does not want to make repairs, I have the authority to tell him that he can either be sanctioned with money, he could be put in jail, there are a number of things that can happen if he doesn’t want to cooperate.  I fortunately haven’t had to do that in the majority of the cases, and so I think the very nature of the position helps people see that they’ve got to cooperate and to do the things that they are legally required to do.

Len Sipes:  The judge who I interviewed from the Red Hook community from New York basically, I’m not, these aren’t his words, but my impression from just talking with him, it was, look, I was sick and tired of this problem, I called everybody together, and nobody’s going to refuse a judge.  That’s the sense that I got.  Ladies and gentlemen, we’re halfway through the program, quickly halfway through the program, we’re talking today to the honorable Judge Milton Lee, Jr., Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and the honorable Judge Melvin Wright, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  I want to go down the list of special courts that we have here in Washington, DC: housing court, prostitution court, fathering court, family court, drug court for both adults and juveniles, mental health court, community courts in ward 6 and 7, traffic community court and mental health community court, and I do want to get into drug court questions.  The basic philosophy behind drug court is what?

Milton Lee, Jr:  Well, the basic philosophy by a drug court is to treat people who are drug addicted and who are committing crimes to support their addiction.  If you can, if you steal, if you rob because you need to have money to support your addiction, if you’re able to treat someone so they don’t have the addiction, then the natural consequence is there’s no need for them to rob or steal from somebody.  So the point of the drug court program is to treat those people who commit crimes, and in most cases, the reason they commit the crimes is because they’re trying to feed their habit, so if we can get them to get rid of their habit, then it serves our purpose in terms of reducing crime as well.

Len Sipes:  I spoke to a judge one time in a rural area who said, you know what, Leonard, we’ve been doing these specialized courts forever.  It’s just that we in a rural area have the wherewithal, I know the chief of police personally, I know the head of parole and probation personally, I know the person who runs the jail personally, I have lunch with them occasionally, and we know the offenders who come before us personally, so we’ve been working these special courts.  He said, you all in the urban areas, you have these special courts, and we have been doing diversion in terms of putting a person in drug treatment for decades, so the sense was, is that we within urban areas, in the cities throughout the United States, had to create what happens naturally within the smaller courts.  Am I in the ballpark, or am I completely wrong?

Milton Lee, Jr:  He may well be true, but one of the things that you just have to keep in mind for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, on average, we see 10,000 people a day in the building in the various courts.  It’s an extraordinary number of people.  The court has really become the central focus of so many people in their lives, and that’s why we have so many services available, because people come to us looking for solutions now.  These problem solving courts is an outgrowth of that.

Len Sipes:  10,000 people.  That’s an enormous amount of people.  I’m right down the street from the Superior Court, and when I have my morning cup of coffee, I look down and I see the lines, so those 10,000 people are evident just in terms of the people waiting to get into the courts.

Melvin Wright:  And if you think about how we were treating the drug cases before, there was a period of time where there was a lock them up mentality.  Let’s take them off the street, let’s incarcerate them and take them out of society, but the problem is that there was a cost to that.  If you look at the cost to incarcerate an individual, it can be anywhere from $30-40,000 a year, and we’re talking about any criminal offense, so if you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’re going to tax, drain your tax base.  When you look at the treatment model, that cost can be anywhere from $3-5,000, so there’s a tremendous, and we’re talking about per person, so there’s a, so if you don’t believe that you should try to help people, then the argument that it’s fiscally responsible to do it should work as well, so we’re taking a position that both work.  We have a responsibility to try to get people who are addicted off drugs, and the programs themselves are very intense.  This is not a walk in the park.  We’re not letting people off.  We drug treat, drug test them twice a week, so if they’re using, we know immediately, and if they are using, there’s immediate punishment, so the model that we have set up not only is effective in a responsible way, but is also fiscally responsible as well.

Len Sipes:  A lot of accountability and you know what’s happening throughout the country is correctional systems throughout the United States are really suffering.  There are governors in states, and I get a variety of news summaries that are sent to me on a day to day basis, and you can see it every single day, of this state cutting out 20% of their lower end population, the other state releasing lower end offenders two months early, that the judges, the governors are basically saying that we can no longer afford to provide this level of service, so the entire country is looking for a model, a different way of doing things, because the states can no longer afford record levels of incarceration.  So the fiscal issue is there.  Does, do these special courts satisfy the individual citizen’s need for justice?  Not the person attending the court, but the individual citizen’s perception as, that this is, this floats my boat, this provides me with a sense that justice is being done?

Milton Lee, Jr:  There’s probably a two part answer to that, and I’m going to speak really specifically about the fathering court program, because I preside over that.  And this is what we ask the men who come into the program to do, and it’s essentially four things.  We ask them, when they come home from a period of incarceration to start working, and we will get them employment.  Second, we ask them to pay child support.  If we get them working, we’re going to get child support, because it comes through wage withholding.  We get the money before they get their money.  We ask them to have a significant connection to their children, and we ask them lastly not to reoffend.  If we can accomplish those four things, I think what you’ll see is families that begin to heal.  You’ll see men being responsible fathers, you’ll see mothers appreciative to have any assistance that they deserve to have.  Now I don’t know how you frame justice in that context, but that type of response to the issue of child support and raising children in the District of Columbia is certainly just to the kids.

Len Sipes:  It’s just to the average person, the average citizen is going to say, yep, that’s justice.  That is justice.  The father is reconnected with the family, both fiscally and hopefully spiritually, and this is obviously in the public’s best interest.

Melvin Wright:  From the drug court point of view, most families have been struggling with the individual’s use of drugs for many years before they even come, and so they’re always asking us to get their son or their daughter treatment.  They’ve had the experience of having their child or son or daughter steal from them personally, trying to find ways, trying to convince them, because sometimes a person who is addicted needs to be in a situation where they don’t, no longer have the choice.  They have the choice to be in the program or not be in the program, but once they’re in the program, there’s discipline that is applied that they must follow, and if they don’t do it, then there’s consequences.  So from the community’s point of view, I think they’re, one of the reasons this started was because people said, these people need treatment, not jail, and so from that point of view, I think the community applauds us, and I think that’s one of the reasons why this has been adopted throughout the country.  We started this early in the 90s, but now Maryland, Virginia, and practically every state in the union, if they don’t have a program like this, they have some modified version of it.

Len Sipes:  Right, there are hundreds of drug courts throughout the country.  I guess what I was looking at it from the standpoint was, the victim’s point of view, because if I’m the victim of that person, there’s a certain sense of retribution, I guess, that I’m looking for, or justice that I’m looking for, and I think what people don’t quite understand is that being in drug treatment and being held accountable for the first time in your life and exploring why you’ve been involved in drug use for these past decades and being constantly drug tested and being constantly under supervision by community supervision officers, that’s one of the hardest things that they will ever encounter in their lives, so I think, once it’s explained that way, the public sees it both sides.  The offender is being held accountable, and he is paying a price through drug court.  Am I right, or am I being utopian about it?

Melvin Wright:  No, you’re absolutely right, and I think what you’ll find is that most victims, as you describe them, would want a person to have drug treatment.  I don’t think people who are victims of persons who have been drug addicted have this idea that they need to go to jail and stay there.  I think if they understand what the person has gone through to get to this point, I think they follow the model that most citizens do, that we need to help this person become a citizen, a productive citizen, and one of the things that was most impressive to me when I was in the drug court program is that you’re really dealing with people, and quite frankly, my experience there was the best experience I’ve had since I’ve been on the bench, because you as a judge talk individually to the defendant, and you have an interaction with each other, which you don’t have in any other court, and so they get to know you, you get to know them, you talk straight to them, you make them realize that, look, we can still send you to jail.  Those things haven’t gone away.  So someone doesn’t follow the treatment model, doesn’t want to cooperate, we still have the same things that we have done traditionally, but here’s an opportunity for you to change your life, and I can’t do it.  You have to do it.  I can be here, and all the people here in the program can help you, but the bottom line is that you’re the one that has to perform.

Len Sipes:  And the research seems to suggest, Your Honors, that a police officer can say this, a parole and probation agent can say it, somebody at the jail can say it, it doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as that person wearing the robe in that court with the flags, with the bailiff, with the court reporters, there’s something about a judge saying it that carries weight that the rest of us do not have.  Now I’m not, it’s not my suggestion, I’ve read this in a variety of research reports, so it strikes me that maybe, just maybe, all of this conceptually may not be the driving force.  Maybe the driving force is the judge behind the bench saying it, and not the parole and probation agency saying it.

Milton Lee, Jr:  I don’t disagree with you at all, but I want to underscore something that Judge Wright said.  It’s easy for judges to use power and to be coercive.  These things work because the people in the program want to make a change, and when the judges take the role of having a very personal interaction with the people before them, it’s different from the regular model.  As you see, people respond to that, because if they’ve been through this system before, they haven’t had that type of response, and they do respond to it, because they know for a change the judge is intimately involved with your success.

Len Sipes:  And you’re not just a figure in the system.  If you come back, and you now have those three drug positives, Judge Lee and Judge Wright’s going to know about you.  You’re not an anonymous figure; it’s not like morning bail hearings where you’re going through hundreds of individuals.  You know the individual coming back to your court.  You know his circumstances, you know her circumstance, that’s a little frightening, I think, to offenders who have traditionally gone through a criminal justice system rather anonymously.
Melvin Wright:  Well, an analogy I like to use is, it’s like the pitcher in baseball or the quarterback in football.  Yes, we as judges have a large role in that, but we can’t do anything without other players, so to speak, so the pitcher can throw the ball, but if there’s not a catcher back there, it’s not going, it’s going to go far away and never be seen again.  So if the quarterback doesn’t throw it to the wide receiver, he’s not going to score a touchdown.

Len Sipes:  Your Honor, you’ve got the final word.  Ladies and gentlemen, at our microphones today, the honorable Judge Milton Lee, Jr., Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and the honorable Judge Melvin Wright of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  Ladies and Gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We appreciate the calls and letters and emails.  Keep ‘em coming, and please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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