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Do you think the rules are fair?


Brooklyn focus group participants appeared, in general, to find the drug court experience fair:

  • The rules are fair. . . . [General agreement.]

  • Of course.

  • Think where we could be at . . . behind bars . . . doin’ what you have to do. At least now you have a chance. You go about your business.

  • Maybe a little too soft . . . with a violation.

  • I would disagree when I first came in, but after I got into the process, I knew I needed to set some bounds to take care of myself.

  • I disagree. I gotta work Monday through Friday, I don’t have no time to myself ’cept on the weekend, y’know. And for the urine that I gave when I came in—I come in with a 130 urine and I gotta start the process all over again.

  • It’s like they say, if you don’t understand it, you don’t agree with it. But once you realize what’s being done for you is in your best interest, there is no other reason for you not to go along. . . . And if you buck it, you get slapped. Know what I’m sayin’.

  • They some individuals who don’t want it. If they don’t want it, fine. But if you want it, they’ll help you.

Las Vegas

Some Las Vegas participants had particular grievances about incidents that had happened to them—such as not being able to pay the fee or not attending treatment—when circumstances had, in their view, just made this impossible. There was some feeling that a little more flexibility would be desirable:

  • The only rule I don’t think is fair, but I guess because I’m not in here for that, is that alcohol is legal.

  • I don’t think it’s fair about sometimes coming to class and if you’re a minute or two late the doors are locked and you’re out, that’s it. There used to be makeups here when I first started. . . . I mean, you know, s*** happens, man, everybody gets the breakdown or whatever, you know, who’s to say who’s Father Time and where they could be setting their clocks by. Two minutes after 7 o’clock and you’re screwed. . . .

  • I disagree with that because too many people take advantage of you. . . . I think the rule is good for us. . . .

  • A little flexibility. . . .

  • He yells at you.

  • When I first came into the system I cooperated for the first 2 weeks and then I got pneumonia and for 2 weeks I couldn’t come but I kept in contact over the phone. Well, when I went to the doctor and he wrote me an excuse but didn’t write it for the full 2 weeks, he just dated it. . . . I got to court and the judge put me in jail for 4 days and I was still sick the next day. . . .

  • [When he put me in jail], I was very depressed and both times I got out of jail I went right out and got high. It was like a rebellion thing. I guess it was stupid . . . but it was all about, yeah, go ahead and throw me in jail, I’m just going to get out and do the same damn thing. . . . Well, I think it was the right thing for him to do . . . he followed through.

  • Pretty much the only job I can hold right now [because of the treatment program and court schedule] is a graveyard job. I don’t have any job right now because of meeting the demands [of the program].

  • Look, I was 5 minutes late to class and Diane wouldn’t let me in but here’s the speeding ticket from a cop. He don’t care, you know. “You should have left earlier.” . . . It does not matter.

However, mixed in with the individual anecdotes about incidents in which focus group participants felt they had not been treated as fairly as they would have liked, the general sentiment (particularly when participants were talking about other people’s experiences) was nevertheless that the rules were necessarily strict and that the judge was fairly consistent in his enforcement of the rules:

  • Sure, it makes you realize why he’s putting you in jail. . . .

  • [The rules] are fair but everybody does slip and you do have problems. This town is a fast, fast town and things don’t always go your way. . . . They don’t take any of that into consideration.

  • I have a lot of respect for the man, and I think he’s really trying to help us and the s*** that he hears from people. . . . But don’t waste his time. That’s how I think he feels. He hears it all, you know, and he hears some crap. A lot of crap. I can’t believe some of the excuses people have given him. I mean, he still gives them chances sometimes too, you know.

  • The first time I got dirty, he didn’t lock me up for 4 days. He locked me up for a week and that was just one dirty for alcohol.

  • That was the same rule I went to jail for. He did the same two people after me, I believe, because he was so mad at me.

  • I went to jail because I forgot a court date and then stayed in jail for 3 weeks.


Miami focus group participants all had the original drug court judge (the first in the nation and the longest continuing), the Honorable Stanley Goldstein, as their common frame of reference. They described a fair and consistent experience relating to sanctions and rewards in the drug court:

  • Yeah, very fairly.

  • I don’t know about being sanctioned. I don’t see getting more help in jail. Because in jail people go on and do this and do this—bad influence—you don’t have that help. It’s all war stories.

  • Yeah, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do for the system to help you, then you pay the consequences. I think it’s a fair game. If you go to court dirty . . . if you come here and drop urine and it’s dirty . . . he says, “Well you’re dirty,” then you pay the consequences.

  • Yeah, I do because I come up dirty, because of all my testing for cancer and everything and it’s not fair to me, y’know. Judge Goldstein sees the screen and tells me I’m dirty . . . they throw me on the side, okay? And everybody in the audience, all the addicts, are laughing at me, okay? I get nervous, I start crying because I suffer anxiety depression, okay . . . and I know he’s going to take me in the back and make me urinate, so I have to drop, then he comes out and he says she’s clean. Meanwhile everybody else is gone from the courtroom and they all think I was dirty and I’m not. . . .

  • It’s kind of hard on their part ’cause they’re just doing their job. They gonna be getting that stuff from them, so some still gonna be using. They say I’m gonna have this in my system anyway so I might as well get high. . . . They don’t know who is still getting high or is just getting drugs or who’s just getting these drugs and being honest. They don’t know. They can’t tell. If your study coming up dirty, they can’t tell whether you’re using or not because they not with you 24 hours. . . .

  • If you a user, you a seller, you could have been Scarface himself, you come through this court here, they give you a chance, I know that. Other things you can do . . . you come through here, if you do get caught with a key, you know what I saying, you know you ain’t coming back here, no mo’. That’s your opportunity right there. You go to prison, jail, or death. Through here, it’s a chance to go through life . . . try to live another year, having Christmas next year, it’s a chance, you know what I’m saying.


Most of the Portland participants’ comments on the fairness of application of the drug court rules centered on going to jail. There was consensus among some that being sent to jail as a sanction was based on a partly arbitrary process, depending on the judge and an element of chance. Sometimes they knew they should be sent to jail, but the judge gave them another chance. At other times, they reported that the judge would unexpectedly decide to make an example of them by sending them to jail:

  • I felt treated unfair. Yes, I did make a mistake, but I was never given a warning about going to jail. I was never given a sanction like that except for sitting in court for a couple of days all day.

  • Well, I had one dirty UA and I was really chastised for not admitting it, and I feel it’s like you must be crazy if you think I’m going to admit something, you know, and risk going to jail. So it’s like, you know, you get rewarded . . . you get punished for being honest.

Portland focus group responses about the fairness of the rules, particularly for noncompliance, varied quite a bit by participant. Several participants felt they had been treated unfairly for their transgressions; some complained about particular instances in court. The common theme among their comments was a feeling that rules were applied inconsistently. A number of participants explained that this was the natural result of having so many different judges sitting in the drug court and their frequent rotation:

  • They need to set up some kind of guidelines to make sure everybody gets treated the same. . . . If you do this, this is your punishment.

One participant reported, for example, that he/she was sent to jail for his first dirty UA, when others were given lighter sanctions for the same offense (e.g., ordered to sit in court all day). Another stated that he/she had three consecutive dirty UAs, which should have resulted in his/her termination from the program, but the judge gave him/her another chance. Similarly, one participant stated that he/she knew he/she was going to drop his/her first dirty UA but he/she chose not to admit it because of the threat of going to jail; essentially, he/she felt he/she would be punished for his/her honesty, rather than rewarded and given a lighter sanction. Another participant felt the rules were fair and argued that the inconsistency came from the program’s attempt to treat each case individually and from the different judges who presided in the Portland (Multnomah County) Drug Court.

San Bernardino

Among San Bernardino focus group participants, there was an overall view that the drug court was fair, but there were mixed views in individual cases:

  • [Are the rules fair?] Yeah. [General agreement.]

  • Uh, no. Just a couple of them. . . . You lose your court [date] card and you go to jail.

  • I don’t like the money thing. You got no money and you still have to pay.

  • Not all of them. I think people are putting in great effort and they’re showing growth and . . . they should take that into consideration for some people. Because a lot of them come straight from jail . . . and don’t have the money to give.

  • I think the money is fair, because, y’know, you got money for drugs. . . . It’s not too much, $10 a week.


Seattle participants generally agreed that the program was fair:

  • It feels fair. [General agreement.]

  • There’s one thing I didn’t like when I came here. I was already clean. They give you the rundown, if you mess up, if you mess up. I’m like, hey, I’m doin’ good. We gonna get you here, we gonna get you there. It’s more or less like they’re waiting for me to screw up.

  • You’re the exception. [General agreement.]

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002