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America may be losing its war on drugs. But

Looking for a Way Out


On Feb. 10, 1999, Alondra Moseley walked out of a Chamberlayne Avenue apartment in Richmond's North Side carrying close to 6 grams of crack in her pocket. Flashing blue and red lights and a swarm of police quickly surrounded her. Moseley pleaded for police to let her get high before going to jail. They refused. "I remember being handcuffed begging the police, 'Please, please let me use some of this stuff before I get locked up,'" she says. Moseley didn't care that she was headed for jail. All she could think about was how much money she'd wasted by not using the crack. "The police told me how pitiful I was," Moseley says. Twenty-one months later, 10 days before Christmas 2000, excitement stirs a packed City Council chamber. Alondra Moseley sits solemnly in the front row. Nearly 80 people have turned out for the first graduation ceremony of the Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court, an alternative sentencing program for nonviolent drug offenders. A choir of 10 men, all recovering addicts and drug-court graduates, sing the chorus to "After Time and Space": "We made it through the storm." Before a crowd of family, friends and public officials, five addicts who had committed felony drug offenses file in front of Judge Margaret Spencer, the city manager and the police chief. As they accept their hard-won certificates, each gives a brief and convincingly heartfelt testimonial. Drug courts, they say, force offenders to take responsibility, not just for their crimes but also for their rehabilitation. Moseley — and everyone else in the chamber that day — clearly hope that's true. Drug courts give nonviolent drug offenders the chance to trade jail time for a new kind of court-mandated drug treatment. The judge is the arbiter of freedom and, what's more, recovery. Drug courts have swelled in popularity since former Attorney General Janet Reno initiated the program in 1989. The Crime Act passed by Congress in 1994 added impetus by providing more than $100 million in federal seed money. Today, there are 483 drug-court programs operating in 48 states; another 268 are planned. Drug courts provide a therapeutic trend in a criminal-justice system long based on punishment. And they are increasingly viewed as a way out of a war on drugs that has stumbled into exhaustion. It's a war that's been fought with little or ambiguous effect, and its pitfalls are being pointed out by politicians, judges and movies like "Traffic." Drug courts are "such a change in direction from the incarceration model of criminal justice and the drug war we've battled," says Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks. "When we, as a community, get more real with the drug problem, the solution gets more real." There is no question that the current revolving door of drugs and crime is in need of reform. But whether drug courts can continue to succeed — and, in the long term, alter the war on drugs or the criminal-justice system — is a matter of how "real" judges, addicts and policymakers can become. By all accounts, everybody wants to break the cycle that keeps addicts coming back to the courts. Are drug courts the way out of this mess? Maybe — if they're not overwhelmed by their own success. Proponents say drug courts represent precisely the kind of "treatment model" that should be applied to other judicial proceedings — special courts for juveniles, families, DUI cases — and more money and resources should be funneled to support them. The clearest example of this belief came in November, when California passed Proposition 36, a mandate committing all drug offenders to treatment instead of jail time. Even some drug-court supporters contend that Prop 36 goes too far — drug courts aren't for everyone, they say. Critics say it's too early to tell if they will work. Some argue that programs like drug courts that work on a small scale can't expand to remedy a broader and more complex criminal problem. They point to the limitations that even a successful program like Project Exile in Richmond suffered when it expanded statewide. A recent study published by the National Institute for Justice, a federal watchdog agency and arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, distills what both sides suggest: "Drug courts save lives, a function that appeals to all political philosophies and goes far to refute the notion that 'nothing works.'" But unchecked enthusiasm and growth of the program could be the very thing that threatens it. Notes the NIT report: "Ironically, success is perhaps the biggest peril drug courts face." Drug courts must produce more results than fans. Alondra Moseley started using crack 11 years ago when she was 26. A former nurse's assistant, Moseley worked three part-time jobs to raise two kids on her own. But, she says, she always felt like a failure. She was in an abusive relationship with the father of her youngest child, and when he died she was alone. Moseley moved to Jefferson Village because, she says, it was the only place she could afford. She had no friends and knew no one. "What really started me using was trying to fit in. Smoking crack made me feel like I fit in," she says with a smooth and raspy voice that seems to deepen with each menthol cigarette she smokes. Her oversized glasses obscure her face in such a way that when she takes them off to rub her eyes she looks 10 years younger. Moseley, 37, had been raised in Richmond in foster homes and knew the heartache it could cause. She always wondered why her own mother gave her up. But as desperate as she was, she kept using, and by 1993 her addiction was so out of control that her son and daughter had to be placed in foster care. Even that didn't shock Moseley into reality. "My son used to run away from his foster care and come and find me. And I'd be high as a kite and I'd run him away because I didn't want him to see me like that," she says. What Moseley shares about her life isn't easy. Even after years of group therapy sessions she says she's still learning to be open and how to talk about her addiction. Today, she's got added support from her boyfriend, Sam Cook. When she recalls the pain her drug abuse has caused, she turns to Cook to comfort her. Silver and gold rings adorn every one of her long fingers with their silver-painted nails. She turns the middle one on her right hand as she speaks. She got it from Narcotics Anonymous. "When I look at my NA ring, it gives me a sense of security," she says. But she wears the one she values most on her left ring finger. Cook gave it to her for Christmas. "This is my most powerful piece," she says. "It reminds me that Sam loves me." Moseley says it's taken her a long time to believe that was possible. Women are different from men in their addictions, she says: "When women are in their active addictions, they disrespect themselves in different ways. They'll cover up their fears and their horror stories and keep closed." In 1993, the same year her children were taken away from her, Moseley got pregnant. She says she spent the entire nine months in denial. "I knew I was pregnant when the dealers wouldn't sell to me anymore," she says. It was the beginning of a five-year nightmare. In 1995, Roanoke Circuit Court became the first court in Virginia to establish a drug-court program. Something needed to be done to address the alarming spike in drug-related crime. From 1990 to 1997 drug arrests in Virginia rose 66 percent. Arrests led to convictions — 69 percent of people convicted of drug offenses are sent to jail — and jails became strapped: Nearly 30,000 inmates are in state correctional facilities. More than 5,000 have been released on parole while nearly 33,000 offenders are on probation. With one third of all arrests being drug-related, it means more drug-related cases than ever are being handled by state courts. The cost to taxpayers mounts. The DOC reports that it costs $39,669 to incarcerate an offender for one year in Virginia. On the other hand, drug courts say the cost to put an offender through its program for a year is $3,000. "Drug-court programs are a local solution to a local problem," says Chief Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer, who presides over Richmond's drug court. They are a new way of doing business, she says. "Drug courts represent a legitimate sentencing alternative that may reduce drug use and recidivism," says Spencer. Richmond, like other localities, has handled drug offenders the same way for years, while expecting the results to differ. Typically, drug offenders are arrested, convicted, incarcerated and released. Fifty percent of those released are arrested again within three years. In an effort to slow the cycle, the Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court was set up in 1997 under the Virginia Department of Corrections. Earlier this fall, the duties of administering the drug court shifted from state control to the city of Richmond to make it a more community-driven program. The city has received $325,000 from the Department of Criminal Justice Services to fund its drug-court program through 2001. In March 1998, Judge Spencer began speaking to Justice Donald Lemons about drug courts. Now retired, Lemons was Richmond's first drug-court judge, and Spencer says his "commitment to the program was both inspiring and contagious." What started out as a curiosity for Spencer has become a mission. The time she spends on drug courts is in addition to her regular court docket. She's been Richmond's drug-court judge for 26 months and says, "I am now convinced drug-court programs are an effective alternative to incarceration for our participants." But some worry that not enough is known about drug courts. With millions of dollars being funneled to create them, what safeguards will ensure new programs won't become diluted and lose impact? How will drug courts expand without accumulating too many cases to process? Skeptics like Richmond Circuit Court Judge J.B. Wilkinson say questions like these should be considered before giving drug courts too much credit. Wilkinson, who will retire this month after 31 years on the bench, says he's not convinced drug court is the remedy Richmond needs. Wilkinson says there is a fundamental flaw in a philosophy that suggests drug offenders aren't getting the fair treatment they deserve. They are, he insists. "I have drug court," he says. Between 60 and 75 percent of his cases are drug-related and to refer them to a special drug court simply shifts the burden to another judge. "As a citizen judge, my obligation is to handle my cases and make my rulings fairly and objectively," says Wilkinson.
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