Pubdate: Fri, 24 Jan 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


THE JUDGE TOLD the young woman standing before him she could have a Life 
Saver and spend half a day doing community service.

Or she could leave her Life Saver in that big jar on the bench between them 
and not work the four hours.

Others who preceded her in standing before Judge Bradley Smith at that 
weekly session of the Fort Bend County Drug Court automatically got Life 
Savers without having to do community service. But they each had met all 
the court-ordered obligations and duties without a glitch since the last 

This young woman had been late to one of the meetings she is required to 
attend under the drug court program. Successful completion of the program 
results in no criminal record. But if you wash out of it, your case gets 
turned over to the regular justice system for routine disposition.

The idea behind drug courts is that a combination of judicial oversight and 
supervised treatment works better to reduce drug use and crime than if 
courts and treatment operate separately.

County slow to get started The concept has been slow to catch on in Texas. 
Nationally, there are more than 900 drug courts. Texas has but seven. Two 
years ago the Legislature ordered three other counties -- including Harris 
- -- to get them going, but our officials have been dragging their heels.

Courts administrator Jack Thompson told me on Thursday that a team finally 
is heading out to California on Monday for a three-day meeting on drug 
court planning.

Harris County taxpayers pay far more money than residents of any other 
region in the state for locking up people over drug crimes. We should be 
first in line to try anything that might improve our local justice system. 
(Studies have shown that every public dollar spent on drug courts saves 
close to $10.)

The young woman in the drug court spotlight in Richmond offered Judge Smith 
a good excuse for her tardiness. Smith said that while he sympathizes with 
anyone who has car trouble, excuses just don't fly in the program. She was 
late. She must pay. Either give up the Life Saver or take it and do the 
four hours.

If it was just the little piece of candy it appeared to be, the choice 
would be easy. You can buy an entire package for a few coins at any 
convenience store. Who would work four hours for only one?

But in Smith's drug court a Life Saver is not just candy. It is a symbol of 
success. Different drug courts use different gimmicks and rewards in their 
programs. Smith said his operation reflects some of what he learned when 
helping his own son conquer a marijuana habit. He knows that a group of 
peers can make a big difference in an individual's recovery efforts.

All share triumphs, shortfalls When he calls you to approach the bench to 
discuss your progress, if you have tested drug-free and met all the other 
requirements, he announces to the others in the courtroom that you are a 
lifesaver. The others applaud, and you take a Life Saver from the jar.

If you mess up and don't make it, you don't just let yourself down, you 
disappoint the whole group.

There also is a symbol for that disappointment. If the group isn't 100 
percent lifesavers at the end of the session, if even just one out of the 
entire bunch didn't make it, everyone must drop a dollar in the pot on the 
way out of the courtroom.

That is why it might be worth four hours of community service to someone to 
take a Life Saver and be a lifesaver.

"You can decide," the young woman told Judge Smith.

"No," he said, "it's your decision."

Learning to weigh the options and make good decisions for yourself is a 
part of the program.

It was obvious she didn't want to spend a half day of her weekend on 
community service work. It was also obvious that she wanted her Life Saver.

The judge watched her face and waited. The others in the program watched 
her back and waited. You could have heard a pin drop.

Finally, her hand moved slowly to the jar as she announced her decision. 
The applause started. She took her Life Saver.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens