Myself and another Court Watcher attended our first session of drug court yesterday in Shelby County, AL. We chose Shelby County because it is supposed to be a model for the rest of the state. Since there are 25 (or more) new drug courts up and coming in Alabama we wanted to see how exactly they are suppossed to work based on how the model court is operating.
It was a hectic, crowded and confused scene outside courtroom 5 on floor 2C of the Shelby Co. courthouse. I did not go in with any kind of expectations as far as number of attendees, but I was absolutely SHOCKED at the vast number of people there as defendants. We estimated 100-120. What was even more shocking, even to a seasoned courtroom veteran like myself, was the racial make-up of defendants. It was 97% white. I have never been in any courtroom in the state where the majority of defendants were white by such a huge margain. Of course, Shelby Co. is overwhelmingly white and rich, too. Of this overwhelmingly white crowd the vast majority looked to be between the ages of 16-24. Just kids, hauled into court and made to fight and unfair fight for the freedome for nothing more than a little youthful indescrition.
While waiting in the hall for the courtroom to open my friend and I struck up conversations with some nearby attendees. The first was a young man...maybe 21 who was there for simple possession of marijuana. I asked him if that was a pretty common reason for other folks there and he said yes. So much for an Alabama legislator from Shelby Co.'s assertion that 0% of Shelby Co. drug court attendees are there for simple marijuana possession. I asked him about his fees and he said he had to pay $2500 to attend drug court, plus his fines, plus his CRO visit costs, plus his $235 for an alcohol class that he described as absolutely useless. He said his drug tests were included in the $2500, but before he paid that amount he was having to pay $35 for drug tests.
Let's do a little math. 120 people paying $2500 each comes out to $300,000. This drug court thing is a money machine. The profitability of it invites corruption because the more people they can round up and herd through it the more money they make.
Another man, who was maybe 35 and there for possession of meth said he had to pay $3000 for drug court and $8 for drug tests. He also said that when he takes a drug test there is no way to prove that he took it. He said this week he came up three times and took all three tests, but that the one for Wednesday had been called into question. Since he had no receipt as proof that he took it he said that he would be put in jail. I don't know if what he said is true but I do plan to find out. It should be standard fare that when a drug court attendee submits a urine sample that they be given some way to prove that in court. There is just no excuse for not providing documentation.
In front of us in line was a group of what appeared to be teenagers who all knew each other. The dominant topic of their conversation was pot so I assume thay were there for simple possession. One of these kids was really goth. Tall, skinny, pale...looked like he could be the lead singer of a metal band. Unfortunately, that look also makes him a cop magnet. His name was called by a guy in a suit and he approached the front of the line. When he got to the guy who called his name (who, as it turns out, was the PUBLIC DEFENDER) the guy started yelling at him in front of everybody. Apparently, the kid was suppossed to meet with him the previous Friday before leaving court and didn't do it. Later in front of the Judge the kid explained that he had waited for a long time and no one ever called him back to meet with the Public Defender. He assumed that everyone was gone so he went home.
I was really upset by the public defender's actions toward this kid. First, he's just a kid. Second, I too have sat for hours in courtrooms without anyone telling me anything. Truthfully, courtrooms make you afraid to ask anyone anything. What he did can happen to anyone. Third, and most importantly, the public defender IS HIS DEFENSE ATTORNEY , the guy that is supposed to be on his side, fighting for him and he was way out of line for chastising his client in front of a crowd of people. It matters not that he is a public defender and, therefore, not being paid by the defendant, the duties he is charged with carrying out are the exact same as if he were being paid. It was obvious to me from his explosive public outburst directed at his client that he did not have this young man's best interest at heart. I am considering filing a complaint, if there are grounds to do so, against the Shelby County public defender.
Although we arrived at 9 a.m. we were not allowed into the courtroom until 10:30. The reason for this was because the courtroom was at capacity. When we did get in we sat up front and took notes. The judge called defendants up in groups of 6-8. He asked them each individual questions. It seemed that he asked fewer questions of the ones who had paid all of the drug court fees than he did of those who had not. There was one kid who stated that he "goes to meetings every night except Sunday." I don't know if that means he was sentenced to AA/NA meetings or if he is going of his own free volition...but I aim to find out when I next attend a Shelby Co. drug court session. These happen every Friday at the Shelby County courthouse in Columbiana.
I am looking for other drug courts in the state to begin monitoring. I know there is one in Calhoun County that is one of the worst. There are also courts in Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Jefferson Co./Bessemer and Huntsville. I'll be making visits to all of these as Court Watch gets off the ground. If there is a drug court in your part of Alabama that you would like us to monitor please contact us with your request.