Dignity in the Court

If I’m home at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, the television is most likely tuned to Judge Mathis.  Greg Mathis is humorous, but a no-nonsense judge who oversees small claims cases in Chicago.  Don’t tell any lawyer, but I feel like I’ve earned an honorary law degree after watching this show for many years.  For many people, television is their only knowledge of the court system.  Although entertaining, these shows aren’t an accurate representation of real courtroom proceedings.  To learn more about the operations of a court, a treatment court specifically, I visited a docket in a Mid-Atlantic state.  Here is what I learned.

As I walked into the courtroom, there was a box on a table labeled “Cell Picture of CourtroomPhoneDropbox.”  One by one, participants placed their phones in this box as they entered and took their seats.  Just after 11:00 a.m., it was time to start the adult treatment court docket.  “No one won the lottery?” Judge McStuffins (pseudonym) asked.  The courtroom exploded with laughter at the reference to the 1.5 billion dollars Mega Millions jackpot that week.  

As the first treatment court participant approached the bench, the judge shook his hand and asked, “How are you?”  In their interactions with Judge McStuffins, it was common for participants to mention their phase of the program, how often they talked to their sponsor, difficulties they had in the past week, which support groups they attended, personal victories, and future goals.

Jake (pseudonym) was a participant who was approaching graduation after being in the program for two and a half years.  Along with being sober from alcohol and drugs, he decided to give up cigarettes and hadn’t smoked in almost three months.  The judge thought this milestone was worthy of an incentive.   As a result, Jake was able to spin the prize wheel and he received a $20.00 gift card from Giant, which he was going to use to buy diapers for his baby.  Jake would admit that he has had some hiccups in the program, but he’s thankful for his personal growth.  Through the treatment court process, he has learned how to analyze situations before acting.  He would say later during the court proceeding, “You get locked up for what you do, not for what you think.”

“Take your coat off and stay awhile” the judge suggested in a joking manner as Tim (pseudonym), another participant, approached the bench.   Tim shared how he recently learned that a friend died from an overdose.  He was grateful to be alive after all the times he had overdosed.  Judge McStuffins wanted to know what Tim would do to prevent an overdose fatality.  “I have to focus on my steps and stay sober,” said Tim.

In all, 12 participants detailed their week to the judge.  Some discussed having to re-earn the trust of family members because they were dishonest while using drugs.  A father noted that he wanted to be a role model for his two young sons.  Others suggested that staying sober is a process and they must take one day at a time.

As the docket wrapped up, I became hopeful for the future of treatment courts.  Judge McStuffins treated each participant with respect and dignity and I believe that helped form a trusting relationship between himself and the participants.  This trust must also be established during other components of the treatment court program such as during substance use treatment, housing assistance programming, employment readiness activities, vocational training, and parenting classes.    Of course, some participants will have struggles, but it’s vital to assure them that they can overcome substance use disorders and that treatment court is in place to guide them on their road to recovery.   As we think about methods to increase public trust and confidence in the court system, treating justice-involved individuals with respect and giving them the tools to succeed is a great start, and I believe many treatment courts are already implementing these strategies.