Healing While Defending Right to Counsel

Preeti Menon R2C sign

For those who work in the treatment court field, how often is a public defender part of your drug treatment court team? If your answer is “sometimes,” “not often,” or “not at all,” please continue to read. If your answer is “always,” kudos to you; please share this blog post and your stories with us.

Drug treatment courts use a specialized model for people facing criminal drug charges who live with serious substance use and mental health disorders. Drug court teams, which comprise members of the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social services, and treatment communities, work together to help addicted offenders get into long-term recovery. As part of the drug treatment court team, public defenders participate in the team meetings and often provides input in his/her client’s treatment plan.

Unlike in a traditional courtroom, where prosecutors and defense attorneys take on adversarial roles, in drug courts, they are part of a collaborative team whose main goal is to provide healing and not incarceration. That being said, the threat of incarceration is still present in drug treatment courts, and public defenders must be present as the participant’s advocate from the moment he or she enters the drug treatment court to the moment he or she graduates and is absolved of all charges.

Public defenders in drug treatment court may find it challenging to serve the best interests of their clients, and they may need to approach their work differently from a traditional courtroom setting. They must, for instance, learn to balance open communication with the drug treatment court team when it comes to following a treatment plan while ensuring client confidentiality.

To address some of these challenges, the Justice Programs Office (JPO) hosted a three-part webinar series titled “The Role of Defense Counsel in Drug Courts.” The series walked participants through the ways public defenders can provide effective representation from initial contact with their clients through the completion of a drug court program. Other topics the series covered included providing trauma-informed services and challenging public defense cases.

JPO spearheads the Right to Counsel National Campaign, a public awareness campaign which informs policymakers, criminal justice stakeholders, and the public about the importance of carrying out the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, the ways in which this right is not being implemented, and the roles everyone, including drug courts, can play to ensure it is upheld. At this year’s National Association of Drug Court Professionals Annual Conference, JPO will be furthering the conversation about how to ensure the right to counsel in drug courts by hosting a session titled “Prosecutors and Defenders as Adversaries and Allies” on Friday, June 1 at 1:45 p.m. that will offer both the prosecution and defense perspective of their roles in drug court. One of the discussion topics will be how to ensure a client’s right to counsel while working toward a shared goal of the client’s graduation from a drug court, and I encourage conference attendees to join in on the conversation.

Preeti Menon is the Justice Programs Office’s senior associate director and project director of the National Drug Court Resource Center. She is also the former project director of the Right to Counsel National Campaign