Denied: Access to Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court

08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of my tasks this summer as a law student intern was to research drug courts and draft a report about their strengths and shortcomings for the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading advocacy group for drug law reform based on principles of science, public health, reason and compassion.

Drug courts were invented in the late 1980s in Dade County, Florida in an attempt to divert drug offenders from the criminal courts and offer individuals treatment instead of incarceration. Since then they have proliferated to over 2,000 sites across the U.S. and recently the Obama administration approved an additional $30 million in funding for more drug courts.

In addition to reviewing the published research and literature about drug courts, it struck me as important to also observe first-hand at least one drug treatment court in action. During my first year of law school I visited the Family Court in Queens and Brooklyn, among others, and gained important insights in seeing the law in practice. I settled on the well-known Brooklyn Treatment Courts, which have long held themselves out as national models, and contacted the court's project director, Joseph Madonia, to schedule a visit. I told Mr. Madonia I was a law student researching drug courts while an intern at DPA and we agreed upon on a time for me to visit the drug court in session.

Before my scheduled visit, however, Mr. Madonia called me out of the blue. It seemed there was a problem. "So what exactly is this paper you're writing?" he asked. I reiterated that DPA had asked me to write a paper on drug court practices. Mr. Madonia responded by saying: "I have to ask you: do you support the legalization of drugs? Because DPA certainly does."

I was taken completely taken aback by this question. I first responded that DPA does not, in fact, support the legalization of drugs, but rather advocates for sensible alternatives to the war on drugs. To this end, DPA has openly advocated the taxation and regulation of marijuana use and possession by adults, but has not taken such a position with respect to any other prohibited drugs. Mr. Madonia then pressed me as to whether I supported the taxing and regulating of marijuana. When I hemmed and hawed, not sure why this question was relevant to my being able to visit the drug court, Mr. Madonia ended the conversation by saying "I don't think the visit is going to work."

Quite simply, I had been denied access to a drug court because a drug court official felt that I held unacceptable views about our nation's drug laws and policies. Whether he believed I felt that all drugs should be "legalized," or whether our marijuana laws simply needed reforming, is unclear. But either way, my supposed views were sufficient to deny me access to his program.

Which led me to wonder would Mr. Madonia deny access the other 40% of New Yorkers who support a tax and regulate policy for marijuana -- or the many more who simply question the futility of our current drug laws and policies that largely account for our unprecedented (and deplorable) jail and prison populations? Presumably Governor Patterson who, like Governor Schwarzenegger of California, has called for public debate on the issue, would be hard-pressed to pass Mr. Madonia's ideological litmus test.

But more importantly, why would any officer of the court ask someone about their political beliefs before "allowing" them access to the courts that their tax dollars fund? (When I visited family court I don't recall the bailiff or judges asking me what my views on divorce or parenting were before they let me in their courtroom.) And what, exactly, does the Brooklyn Drug Court have to fear or to hide?

I cannot answer these or the many other troubling questions that arise from my attempts to visit a drug court. But my careful review of the published drug court literature reveals a surprising lack of good data supporting the efficacy of drug treatment programs, or even for coercive treatment as the preferable way to provide substance abuse services. It would have been nice to see a drug court in action, and meet with drug court staff, to balance drug court studies with real-word experience.

Drug use, misuse, abuse and treatment, not to mention criminal justice policy in the U.S., are complex issues that befit, would benefit from, increased attention and discourse by stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds expressing a variety of viewpoints. It is disheartening to report that at least one prominent drug court is fearful of opening itself to broader examination.