Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

How important is the judge in drug court? Couldn’t you succeed in treatment without a judge?

Brooklyn (Hon. Jo Ann Ferdinand)

The comments of the Brooklyn Treatment Court participants referred to the mix of attributes they saw in Judge Jo Ann Ferdinand’s approach in court. Some emphasized the belief that she really cared or treated them like a person.

  • She’ll say, “I see you gained a little weight.” She looks at YOU. She don’t just look at you like you’re an addict. . . . She recognizes the progress you made.

  • She helps, she cares, she wants you to get your life together.

  • She was nice to me too. She’s a sweetheart.

  • At first, her being a judge. She does her job very well. But at the same time, she treats me as a human being.

  • You’re not a number, you are an actual person.

  • She good because she gets to know you after a while. . . . She know your lies . . . ha, ha.

Some participants emphasized the fact that the judge appeared to give them chances that they might not otherwise have gotten:

  • I mean, she gave chances.

  • She’s beautiful because when I first got here and she said, “I could have taken you to trial and won.” . . . but she was lenient.

  • She gives you chances.

  • And you know the judge, she okay; she a good judge ’cause she give chances; but when she get mad, she get mad and you know what. . . . I don’t want to go through that no more.

Others explained that the judge was fair but firm and would take action when appropriate:

  • The only time you see a different side of her is when you really push her. Other than that, she believes in you if you believe in yourself.

  • I never had no problem with her.

  • She can get bad if she wants to. . . . You do the right thing and do what you’re supposed to do, and she’s okay.

  • She knows. . . . I tried to play her a couple of times but I couldn’t make it.

  • She knows your every move. She knows what you’re doin’ even if you think she don’t know. When you get to court she knows.

When asked whether it was really necessary to have a single judge or even whether other officials or a probation officer could do the same job, participants were quite clear that no other approach would have the same effect:

  • She’s the woman. She’s the man. There’s no in between thing from the judge.

  • The judge is a role model figure, a symbol of authority. . . . A lot of us wouldn’t be here if it was a probation officer.

  • A probation officer couldn’t do it. No way. . . . I could beat him any time.

  • They wouldn’t have the authority to do what she can do.

  • Even substitute judges can’t see how we are. They just read.

Las Vegas (Hon. Jack Lehman)

Whether they professed admiration for the drug court judge or not, Las Vegas participants made it clear that their main connection or point of reference to the drug court was the drug court judge. In their responses to questions about the judge’s role in the drug court, focus group participants showed that they were continually reacting to the judge’s expectations, his style, his actions, and the way he held them accountable for their performance in treatment:

  • Disciplinarian. [Definitely need him to be] a disciplinarian. . . .

  • He will make you walk a straight line one way or another. . . .

  • Yep, if he has to stand on you to get you to do it, he’ll do it.

  • I know he needs to play that part instead of a probation officer. . . .

  • But even still, I wouldn’t want his job ’cause some people be telling the truth, you know. He got to make that decision being in a couple of minutes. He’ll sit up there 3, even 4, minutes sometime. You know he got a odd job, man. You know it ain’t easy being up there on that chair.

  • You know he got to be stressed out sometime too, you know. He hurt just like everyone else, you know. . . .

  • I was detoxing for 4 days and it really blew my mind. I mean I hated him. I thought he was the devil. I thought he was the worst thing in the world, you know, ’cause . . . I was just confused. And now I look at him like, you know, he’s saving people’s lives. . . .

Las Vegas participants left little doubt that, from their perspectives, the role of the judge was absolutely essential for the drug court to have its desired effect. They point to the fact that the judge had the authority and the power to hold all drug court participants accountable. Without this central impact, participants felt the program would be ineffective and fairly easy to defeat:

  • A judge should be there. The fear of somebody, I mean the fear of power. . . .

  • A probation officer wouldn’t have the authority to put you in jail.

Las Vegas participants also seemed to be in agreement that the continuity provided by having a single presiding judge in drug court was important to the successful operation of the drug court, and that, otherwise, participants were likely to try to “get over” on substitutes:

  • [The judge] was absent that week and another judge took his place. . . . I skated through that week. . . . It was like, the night before, . . . what’s going to happen, and then some substitute judge, and he passes me over to the next week.

  • The judge that was in there, Judge Lehman, had said the week before, it was somebody that was in court, “You know if you get a dirty UA within this next week, you’re going to jail.” The next judge [taking over for Judge Lehman] was in there and he was, like, “Okay, Judge Lehman said he was going to put you in jail, but, you know, but I’m not.” If Lehman was there he would have done that. He’s a man of his word.

  • No, no, no way. Last week we had a substitute and . . . he was too nice. Yeah, too nice. Rubbery.

  • Right, he really didn’t get it.

  • You certainly need this. . . . It isn’t somebody different every time.

  • Yeah, ’cause he knows. He knew who I was. I had just gotten off from jail from doing warrants.

Miami (Hon. Stanley Goldstein)

Miami focus group participants echoed this thematic view of the role of the drug court judge among drug court participants:

  • The judge is important because of the understanding, the compassion, you know, because being an addict, it’s not like beating us on the head and all that. . . .

  • No other judge will be able to replace this guy. . . .

  • I think that’s why Goldstein’s like that with his people. . . . I been in other courts for different, other charges, and those judges don’t care about you. They just want to lock you up and that’s it. But Judge Goldstein makes it partly fun. . . . He jokes with you. . . . He’s the only judge in the system that actually do that with his people. Actually sit down beside you. You have a problem, he comes and talks to you and he works something out for you.

  • The probation officer . . . they don’t have . . . the power of a judge. . . . You have a lot of probation officers. . . . I try to be fair with everybody. . . . Lot of probation officers today, they look at you and . . . “You either do what I tell you to do or . . . that’s that.” You can judge a person. . . . A judge you can basically go to, like they say, and talk your problems out. A probation officer, he has one thing on his mind: going by the law. His hands are tied.

  • I think the judge plays the best part. . . . It all depends on what particular case you going to be working on . . . but the judge there he’s like the, he’s a referee, if the judge is not there . . . it won’t be a success without him . . . I don’t know how successful the program is, I’m quite sure it’s successful, but it won’t be as successful as it is now without the judge.

  • He’s that leader. . . . He’s a god.


In Portland, where there had been a recent period of rotation turnover of many judges in drug court for relatively short periods, the view among drug court participants was similar:

  • The judge is there to represent all fairness. I don’t want to be in front of anybody’s probation officer, mine or anybody else’s, because the necessity of fairness is not always there.

  • Yeah, a judge is necessary to keep people in line, keep them showing up.

  • It has to be a judge. Drug addicts like myself are too slick, you know, I mean there’s just been too many ways that I have gotten over. A judge has the power of life and death and he can put you in jail.

  • I think we need a judge too. The people that are in the S.T.O.P. program, a lot of them are recovering addicts and alcoholics, and they work the 12-step program and it’s harder to get over on them [judges] than it is a certain kind of probation officer or parole officer.

  • You can get over on probation officers.

  • If you have one judge that oversees this program and she is constant then we all know what to expect, but when you have a whole lot of judges coming in they don’t know what you’ve been through or what’s really been happening with you.

  • When they switched judges on us they brought back up the same issues that I had already taken care of and then threatened me when I said I had already discussed it with the other judge and that he knew what was going on.

  • When you have one judge they are able to track what you are doing better. . . . One is better because you have a link. . . .

  • When it is such a personal issue, it is nice to be recognized by someone. I think that one judge is better because you already have a rapport built up with him.

San Bernardino (Hon. Patrick Morris)

San Bernardino focus group participants expressed a similar mix of views about the role of the drug court judge. First, they believed that he cared about them individually:

  • Judge Morris knows you—he makes sure that you know that he cares about getting your help. With another judge you are just a statistic.

  • He takes more time than the other judges we’ve had. We was in court for 30 minutes and everybody was gone. But with Judge Morris, he take the time to talk to you, like you said, the counselor, he basically wants to know what’s going on in your life.

  • The judge, he’s really nice. Since I been to court, I’ve never heard, well I heard him raise his voice just a little, but the hardest words he ever says—“Get in the box”—when he says those words you’re like, gulp.

Some saw him as a sort of father figure to them:

  • Judge Morris is like a father figure in a sense . . . personal, he seems to know your background, your kids, your name, I mean, he knows a lot of details about you—he remembers what he talked about with you last time. You start to see him as a father figure—where it makes you feel bad if you didn’t do it, or you feel good if you did.

Others emphasized his fairness:

  • He’s been a judge for a long time and he’ll make you or break you; as long as you work with him, as long as you’re honest, that’s the big thing, as long as you’re honest he’ll work with you.

  • When he pats you on the back after you’ve been in the program for so long . . . he tells you you’re doing a good job. It makes you feel great.

  • Judge Morris does put a lot of fear in people.

Seattle (Hon. Nicole MacInnes)

Seattle participants described the same properties when referring to their drug court judge:

  • You can talk to the judge. . . . You’re treated like a human being.

  • Judge MacInnes is one of the sweetest ladies I ever met in my entire life and she’ll bend over backwards to help you. And that’s a fact.

  • If you go to her and say, “I’m screwing up,” she’s more than fair.

  • You lie to her and you’re done.

  • She know you up to lying and you not gonna complete the program ’cause she just get rid of you early. You lie to her and she don’t play ball with you.

  • It gets to where I, everyone knows, you know everyone on a first name basis and they know you and not only does the judge know what’s going on in your life and remembers, Paige does and Dennis, the prosecuting attorney and what’s the name of the guy with the glasses, well anyway, it’s like MacInnes and her crew—it makes me feel, like, on! It develops a trust and I just can go to group with strangers and to a strange court and let everyone know what’s going on. I’ve been up there and I’ve bawled out in front of them.

  • I think we need a judge because people like us are real good at abusing the system. But with the judge, that puts me in check.

  • I think there’s a difference between a drug and alcohol counselor telling you what to do and a judge of the court.

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002