Call it the courtroom of the higher power. Magistrate Judge Lela Mays presides over sessions that unroll like therapy or an Oprah confessional, with zero tolerance for violations. There are nurses and exotic dancers, lawyers and waitresses, the unemployed and the prostituted.
Call the characters in this drama the customers of the cartels.
The docket overflows with drug addicts. Any failures here pump money to the cartels fighting violently for their business. Collateral damage for U.S. society is high. All the women in this drug treatment courtroom have been charged with felonies related to their addictions to cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, alcohol or some cocktail of those substances.
Rachel Fairbanks takes a front-row seat.
She’s a petite 23-year-old with swingy black hair and a diamond stud piercing her left nostril. The single mom’s cocaine addiction makes caring for her 4-year-old son, Nathan, doubly difficult.
Rachel must check in with her probation officer and come to this fifth-floor courtroom once a week, attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting three times a week, and do community service that can include weeding along county roads or painting public buildings.
Two to three times a week, she’ll urinate in a cup under supervision — an undignified chore that assures she’s drug-free and that the urine is her own.She says jail would be easier.That was in May. In June, she slips up. She’s ordered to wear a narcotics patch for missing required meetings with her sponsor and getting behind in restitution payments.
Series of excuses
At a later session, Rachel is called near Judge Mays’ oak podium — perched at the diagonal for the best range of vision in this beige courtroom. Rachel swears the missing drug patch fell off.The 47-year-old judge is soft-featured, favors hoop earrings and is about Rachel’s height. Her presence leaves no doubt she commands this theater.
“Did you do community service?” Mays asks.
A stream of fast-paced, crisp excuses spills out.“No ma’am. My mom is out of town and I had to work my second job. … I had to work all weekend. I can do it next weekend.”Zero tolerance. That includes two weeks in a minimum-security jail for not wearing the narcotics patch.Another woman’s case is worse.
“How did that drug patch get positive?” the judge asks.
“I don’t know,” comes the answer. The other addicts roll eyes at each other, as if on cue. Peer pressure plays a big role in the court’s choreography of treatment.
“You tested positive for cocaine and amphetamines.”
Mays sighs and looks unhappy. “This is the second person today who said, ‘I didn’t use.’ Y’all cut that stuff out. It doesn’t work.”
And that’s why so many days, Mays asks the women to check in with their higher power — a force affirming their path to redemption.
For some, that power seems to flow from spirituality, or inner confidence or the judge herself. She can spot a suspicious bruise at 20 feet, knuckle-bump when a struggling addict experiences success, and spin a drug user into lockup in such honeyed tones you barely grasp what’s happened until the beefy bailiff nears.
Behind the courtroom, in her private chambers, Mays, a single mother of two, tells of visiting Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican city, across the border from El Paso, has the worst violence in Mexico. Cartels and youth gangs that assist them there were largely behind some 3,000 deaths in 2010. A fifth of all narcotics-related murders in Mexico took place there, according to the Mexican newspaper chain Grupo Reforma.
“People get caught up in the wave of violence,” Mays says. “If people knew there was a way out, they could do something positive with their lives.”
Repairing lives tied to drugs is difficult. To stay in the program that Mays supervises in Dallas, participants must hold a job or be searching for one. Living situations are scrutinized. Law enforcement checks are extensive.
Her courtroom stays filled. Although many regulars are end users of drugs from Mexico and Colombia, there’s been steady growth in prescription drug abuse. That mirrors federal surveys showing growth in nonmedicinal use of legal drugs over the last decade.
Some offenders who face Mays have drug offenses. Others have nondrug offenses. Federal surveys suggest a link.
In 2009, 56 percent to 82 percent of those arrested and tested with urine analysis had used some type of drug substance, in 10 cities surveyed by the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program run by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The data is well-regarded; it’s based on physical evidence rather than question responses.
“People say: ‘I want to be tough on crime. I want to put people away,’” the judge says. “If you don’t deal with the drug problem, they come right back. … They educate themselves to be a better criminal.”
Treatment is harder than incarceration, she says. “It’s really easier to do three hots and a cot. But this holds you accountable.”The Dallas County drug treatment courts handle more than 400 cases at any given time in five court sessions a week.
Such courts have been in operation about two decades. Nationwide, there are about 2500 drug courts for adult offenders. But they see only a small portion of offenders; about 5 percent of drug-involved arrestees enter a drug court each year, said John Roman, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a think tank.Drug courts average a 10 to 20 percent reduction in re-offending, Roman said, adding that they provide $2.21 in benefits for every $1 in costs.
“Drug treatment courts aren’t a silver bullet,” Roman said. “But it is an important tool for the criminal justice system to use and probably to use more than we do.” Crucial to success is a judge who stays connected to the struggle of the addict, he said.
At the Washington Office on Latin America, another think tank, senior associate John Walsh calls for more attention to drug treatment. But “the heart of our policy remains arrest and incarcerate,” he says. Drug courts address the problem, but with eligibility requirements that tend to accept those who have no violent crimes on their records yet, Walsh says. “They weed out the more serious offenders … for whom the experience of a drug court could be beneficial.”The Dallas program will take those with violence on their record on a case-by-case basis.
Failures and phases
It was an odd courtroom moment. An aging addict named Carla singles out the youthful Rachel for her support. Rachel glows like a candle. Someone pats her on the back.Carla could have been her grandmother. She’s tall, big-boned, 60-plus years of age with a face that looks strained, perhaps by half a life spent in combat with cocaine.
Carla says she feels stupid, depressed and is tired of being sick.The judge tells her: “You have 35 years of addiction. You need to put in 35 years of recovery.”Weeks later, Carla disappears from the Monday courtroom. She calls Rachel.“Rachel, I have been smoking crack again,” she says.
As the weeks go by, there will be other failures. In February, Rachel lands in jail for violating probation. Mays, ever vigilant about affirmation, asks a certain addict at one session if she remembers a certain song with the lyric that goes something like, “We fall down.” The thin woman in a bubble-gum pink T-shirt and jeans eases out a melody fused with memory, lyrics that match her life.
“We fall down, but we get up. You can turn it around. … For a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.”This woman, too, will disappear in the weeks ahead.For those who keep coming for Monday sessions in the courtroom, there will be applause when they move through phases in the treatment program.
There’s applause when they land jobs. There’s applause when they celebrate an anniversary off drugs. Sometimes, it’s so noisy that other judges send bailiffs to quiet Mays’ fifth-floor courtroom. And each session ends with communal affirmation.“I believe in myself,” says Mays as the chorus follows.“I can do anything.“I am worth the good things in life. “I deserve every good thing that happens to me”.