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Brooklyn, NY is Home to Nation's Largest Drug Court



Beginning in May, 1996 the Brooklyn Supreme Court started an ambitious new drug court for women to try to change the "revolving door" in nonviolent drug cases (Randy Kennedy, "Drug Court for Women Seeks End to Revolving-Door Justice," New York Times, May 22, 1996, p.B1). (The Supreme Court is the court of general jurisdiction in the New York court system - Ed.)

The new court, now the country's largest drug court, is being created with the help of a $1 million Federal grant provided under the 1994 crime bill and $5.5 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is intended to sentence as many as 7,000 drug offenders yearly to treatment instead of prison and to closely track their cases in order to get them off drugs.

Modeled after the first such drug court in Miami, started in 1990 by Janet Reno, then Dade County prosecutor, this approach has grown out of recognition that the present system fails to break the cycle of addiction and crime. Ms. Reno announced grants for the creation of nine new drug courts on May 9, adding to the 80 drug courts operating in various forms in 29 states.

Timothy J. Murray, the Justice Department official who chose Brooklyn as the new court site and who helped start the Miami court, says, "Once [untreated drug offenders] get out, they usually return quickly." Murray added, "They end up back in the community, doing the same things that landed them in court in the first place. Or eventually, they end up crowding a crowded prison."

The Brooklyn court will concentrate on breaking the cycle for female defendants. Women are being arrested and sentenced to prisons in record numbers due to the addictiveness and popularity of crack and mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenses. The number of women in federal and state prisons has risen to 69,028, increasing by more than half in the last six years, according to Federal officials.

Presiding over the new court is Justice Jo Ann Ferdinand. She reserves the treatment programs mostly for first-time offenders with no history of violence. In addition to sentencing, Justice Ferdinand will follow the cases through treatment and decide whether to require more treatment or, in some cases, imprisonment. The court will be the first Kings County court to have computers, so that the Justice, the prosecution and the defense can quickly access a defendant's arrest record, treatment history and drug test results.

Some prosecutors complain that the drug court concept is simply an attempt to get around tougher drug sentences enacted during the Reagan Administration, but even strong supporters of imprisonment, like John J. DiIulio Jr., professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, agree that first-time low-level drug offenders might be better served by special courts and alternatives to jail time.

California Legislature Considering Drug Courts

The California House of Representatives passed a bill (41-25) that will set up "drug court" treatment programs. The bill, waiting in the Senate, requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 90 days for most drug possession offenses and would repeal existing drug diversion programs (Associated Press, "Sacramento in Review," San Francisco Chronicle, June 2,1996, p. A21).

In California, fifteen people graduated in the first graduating class produced by the Ventura County Drug Court. Ventura Municipal Court Judge Barry Klopfer, who led the difficult effort to establish the drug court, recognized graduates during a ceremony and dismissed the misdemeanor narcotics cases against them (Michael Coit, "Clean and sober 15 graduate from county Drug Court's first class," Daily News of Los Angeles, p.1).

The Ventura County Drug Court was launched in April, 1995 and is designed for people who could face up to a year in jail for being under the influence of narcotics. A drug court team reviews cases in which there is no evidence of selling or transporting drugs, or charges of violence or threatened violence, then refers the case to the court where the defendant must plead guilty and sign a contract in order to enter a treatment program.