Judges who show concern for, listen to convicts have more success keeping drug offenders from reoffending

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 6 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Scott Morrison is photographed in his South Jordan home on Wednesday, August 24, 2011. Morrison, a recent graduate of drug court, maintains a good friendship with Judge Skanchy even though he's no longer in the program.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

On the wall of Judge Randall Skanchy's otherwise austere courtroom, there's a bulletin board full of wedding announcements and photos of smiling babies. Nestled among Christmas cards decorated with puppies and Santa hats, there's a GED certificate and an acceptance letter to ITT Technical Institute. In thoughtful memoriam, someone's tacked a fortune cookie message up beneath a dog-eared obituary: "You will achieve perfection."

It's the drug court version of grandma's refrigerator. On this board, Skanchy chronicles the ups and downs of the lives of those who battle their drug addictions under his watch. Through the course of treatment, which lasts an average of 18 months, he gets familiar with their personalities, their problems and their triumphs. And, though he has a reputation among offenders as being "tough," those who sit in his courtroom come to respect him, too.

"He knows these people inside and out," said Patty Fox, manager of Salt Lake City's drug court program. "You can ask him any day, he'll tell you exactly what's going on with any one of them."

A judge's disposition — whether respectful and caring or mean and disinterested — may make the difference between a trip back to prison and an addiction-free life for a drug offender. On a national level, about 70 percent of drug convicts end up back in front of a judge within three years of release from prison. Participation in a drug court program lowers that number by an average of 18 percent. According to a study released by the Urban Institute this month analyzing the factors contributing to rehabilitation, the judge has a bigger influence on success than even the offender's own life circumstances.

That revelation may have broader implications for America's historically hard-nosed criminal justice system. Over the past decade, an increasing number of states have instituted programs copying the drug court model, which puts an emphasis on a more give-and-take model of interaction between judges and defendants. In addition to drug courts, there are now mental health courts, prostitution courts and tobacco courts — to name a few.

An unlikely friendship

Some turn to drugs as a means to sooth emotional pain. Scott Morrison was just looking for a good time. Raised in a religious home where even an after-dinner glass of wine was met with disdain, the 28-year-old wandered into the world of substance abuse as a curious teenager, hobnobbing with the wrong crowd. He took his first drink of alcohol in eighth grade and popped his first pill sophomore year. By 17, he was in juvenile drug court. It took him two years to graduate from the one-year program because, he said, "I was messing around. I was doing everything I couldn't get tested for. I was doing mushrooms, acid. I was drinking."

The drugs were fun — until his life started falling apart. Kicked out of his home for doing drugs, marriage falling apart, facing three felonies, he found himself contemplating suicide. One day the urge to end his life was so strong, he drove himself to the emergency room. "I'm addicted to drugs and I want to kill myself," he told the attending physician.

The first time Morrison met Judge Skanchy, he thought Skanchy was "close minded." The stern middle-aged judge looked intimidating in his formal, flowing black robes. Morrison was nervous, shaking before him.

"He seemed to think he had me all figured out," he said. "And I didn't like it at all."

Morrison, though, had only two options: graduate from drug court or go to prison for up to 15 years. Drug court offers qualifying criminal defendants a way to avoid jail time, receive treatment and reduce the severity of criminal charges — if they abide by an array of stringent conditions imposed by the court. Participants must abide by a curfew, agree to random drug tests, attend treatment classes and sign a "search and seizure" waiver, which grants police unrestricted access to their homes. Offenders meet with a judge on a regular basis, starting out at once a week.

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