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Drug court helps people regain lives 'after something has truly taken their soul'

Judge Dee Anna Farnell, 58, has presided over Pinellas County’s drug court for five years. In 2009, she started the country’s first all-female drug court. “These are nice people. They’re not bank robbers or murderers. They’re addicts.”

Judge Dee Anna Farnell, 58, has presided over Pinellas County’s drug court for five years. In 2009, she started the country’s first all-female drug court. “These are nice people. They’re not bank robbers or murderers. They’re addicts.”

The country's first drug court opened in Miami in 1989, as lawyers and judges were struggling to deal with a huge increase in cocaine arrests. The idea was to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders so they could go back to work and take care of their families instead of going to prison.

Each drug court has a team of professionals trying to help the defendants. The judge, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and counselors track the addicts as they go through treatment and call them back for monthly updates. If someone violates probation, skips counseling or fails a drug test, he or she can be kicked out of drug court.

There are more than 2,400 drug courts in America, some in every state. Last year, about 120,000 people came through these courts.

For every dollar invested in drug court, the criminal justice system saves $2.21, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Savings from reduced foster care placement and health care range from $2 to $27 for every $1 invested. And for every drug court participant, the association said, communities gain an economic benefit of at least $3,000.

Some critics say taxpayers shouldn't have to pay to rehabilitate addicts. Others attack from the opposite perspective: The criminal justice system isn't the right place for nonviolent drug offenders.

"Some participants spend more days in jail while in drug court than if they had been conventionally sentenced," said a March report from the Drug Policy Alliance. "Participants deemed 'failure' may actually face longer sentences than those who did not enter drug court in the first place."

Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who oversees Pinellas' drug court, thinks that sometimes you have to send people to jail to save their lives.

Pinellas' drug court opened in 2001. Farnell has presided since 2007. She sees about 1,200 defendants each year, half of them women. Two years ago, the judge started Ladies' Day — the country's first all-female drug court — with a three-year, $900,000 federal grant. The grant pays for outpatient and residential treatment for women in drug court.

If a woman finishes counseling, pays off court costs and stays clean and is working or going to school, she can get her felony record wiped clean.

Thirty percent of the men and women who come through Farnell's drug court complete treatment, pass urine screens and continue to hold down jobs. The county doesn't keep separate statistics about the Ladies' Day program.

For people who graduate from drug court, 13 percent are rearrested after three years. For people who drop out of drug court, 32 percent are rearrested.

Farnell didn't want to do drug court at first. Too bleak. Then she agreed, thinking she'd do it for a year. If she was going to help people, she needed to hear their stories.

"I wanted to figure out how to connect with the people and try to be a cheerleader, try to be a social worker, try to be a judge all at the same time," she said. "I wasn't prepared for what a difficult clientele these addicts are."

Farnell, 58, graduated from Stetson law school and became an assistant public defender before being elected judge in 1994. She presided over juvenile, family and felony criminal courts before moving to drug court. An avid runner, she has competed in 15 Boston Marathons and this year finished her 10th triathlon. She has a grown son from her first marriage and is married to retired Judge Crockett Farnell.

Dee Anna Farnell stays in drug court because she believes she is making a difference. Mothers send her thank-you cards for saving their daughters. Pregnant women get clean in her court, then bring in their drug-free babies to show her.

"Drug court gives people an opportunity to get their lives back after something has truly taken their soul," she said. "And that's what these pills are doing."

Drug court helps people regain lives 'after something has truly taken their soul' 12/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 16, 2011 6:17pm]
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