Liars' court

Judge John Creuzot looks down from the bench at one of his new charges and apparently doesn't need a probation officer's report to figure out what's going on.

"You've got a pretty good buzz going, don't you?" Creuzot says. "You're high right now. What have you been doing?"

"Well," the man replies, almost mumbling. "I drank some wine."
"Wine. That's all you had?"
"Oh yeah," he volunteers further. "I had a few beers at 4 o'clock."
"Beers? That's all? What else did you take?"

"Uhhh...heroin," the man says, finally admitting what's turned his eyeballs into interstate maps.

So it goes in "divert court," Dallas County's new way of handling people whose only crime is an unquenchable appetite for illegal drugs.

In practice, the bureaucratically named Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment comes off as part group-therapy session, part after-hours court hearing, part liars' club.

The offenders who have gathered in this fourth-floor chamber in the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building include the young and middle-aged, people in gray suits and ties, and those in team jackets and basketball shoes. Facing their first felony charges, they are here because they are hooked and have at least said they want to do something about it.

"Something good is going on here," says Creuzot. "Their drug problems aren't addressed if they come through the courthouse in the normal course of business. We're taking people within 10 days after their arrests, sitting them down, and making an intervention."

The program, which has been quietly under way since mid-January, takes drug offenders before their cases have started through the courts and gives them an opportunity to address the root problem: their addiction.

It attempts to do that through frequent drug testing--twice a week to start--mandatory participation in outpatient drug treatment or counseling, and regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. All that, plus they must appear weekly in Creuzot's divert court, which has been meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesdays. The sessions serve as a combination tent meeting and demonstration project for potential enrollees and observers. All take place in a formal oak-paneled courtroom, with Creuzot directing from the bench.

"It was sort of like a revival meeting when I was in there," says Brook Busby, a defense lawyer who has sat in to observe one session. Last Tuesday, with all the wisecracks and comebacks coming from the bench, it more aptly could have been called "The John Creuzot Show."

The judge brought in a recovering drug addict who explained that he spent a decade "doing everything you could possibly think of" but is now straight and finishing his second year of college. At one point the earnest speaker explained how he still carries his probation officer's card in his wallet, to which he has taped a quarter.

"You better get yourself another dime," Creuzot chimed in.
Of course, lies, excuses, and subterfuge tend to play a big part in drug addicts' lives. So when Creuzot's participants are asked to explain failed drug tests or missed meetings and treatment sessions, dog-ate-my-homework stories begin to fly.

One by one, they are called to stand in front of the bench. Creuzot announces their shortcomings, and they try to explain: "My car ran out of gas." "I don't have a babysitter." "I'm waiting for my tax refund so I can get some transportation." "My friends were doing the drugs, I wasn't." "A guy just laid the drugs on me, free, so I did 'em. I don't know his name."

One young woman explains that she isn't going to counseling because she doesn't like the counselor. "I have problems with people being judgmental," she tells the judge. "I use drugs, but I don't abuse them."

The week before, one man (we agreed before gaining entry to the court not to use participants' names) had given the group a protracted speech about how he had gone straight, only to have a subsequent drug test show that he had been high the night before.

"Come on up here, you and me gotta talk," Creuzot told him. "You pulled a pretty slick one, going on about being clean while you were dirty that day."

"It was all true," the man said before going on to admit he indeed went on a cocaine jag. "I do apologize as far as leading everyone to believe I was clean. I felt I was making changes."

After they pitch their justifications and alibis, Creuzot gets each one to face the group and confess their transgressions.

"I went to Tyler, and I did amphetamines," one young woman admits bluntly.
A middle-aged man in a sports jacket and tie allows: "I smoked crack. I was stupid."

Setting a tone of group concern and support, Creuzot asks for a round of applause when he announces that a woman has passed two consecutive drug tests, and she produces a piece of paper showing she has been attending her AA meetings.

Often, the results are more mixed. One young woman passes two drug tests during the week, but also gets arrested for driving while intoxicated.

There are rewards and punishments for passing or failing the program's myriad requirements. Several consecutive "clean" urinalysis tests, for instance, gain one the privilege of skipping every other week's court session.

"Being nice hasn't worked," says Creuzot, who volunteers his time for the court after he finishes his day in Criminal District Court No. 4. So last week he rolled out a new, tougher set of sanctions. His enlistees must now pay the $8 testing fee for coming up "dirty." A progressive set of penalties ranging from electronic monitoring to curfews and jail await those who don't start catching on, he says.

Creuzot has the power to enforce these sanctions as conditions of pre-trial bond. Those who complete their year to 18 months in the program will have their cases dropped. Those who are tossed out will be prosecuted on their original charges.

A National Institute of Justice report on a similar drug court in Miami found that 60 percent of participants completed the program. Over an 18-month period, offenders in the program had a 33 percent decrease in recidivism.

The Miami example led to drug courts being included in the 1995 federal crime bill. Dallas' program was founded with a $200,000 federal grant, plus support from Dallas County's probation department and other government bodies. It has one full-time employee and is expected to eventually oversee 200 addicts at once.

Creuzot, who works for the court without pay, says drug courts, which began about seven years ago, are a proven way to handle a particular type of drug-addicted offender.

"I know there are people out there who are gonna say this is a soft-on-crime program," he says. "But for crimes like these, this isn't an alternative to jail. It's an alternative to probation."

Probation would nearly always be the penalty for the type of case handled by the divert court: possession of less than one gram of cocaine or between 4 ounces and 5 pounds of marijuana, no evidence of dealing or violence, no prior felony convictions.

"Normally, it would take months, maybe a year, for the charges to be resolved," says Creuzot. "All the while that person is out on the street, being a drug addict, trying to figure how to beat their case.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec

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