Up in the air: Bill that would reshape specialty courts leaves uncertain fate for current programs

By: - May 4, 2017 4:53 am
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In a perfect world, every county from Murphy to Manteo would have a state-funded specialty court to address and treat substance abuse and mental health, reduce recidivism and encourage accountability.

In reality, North Carolina stopped funding specialty courts six years ago, and the Administrative Office of the Courts wants to change the law in such a way that could put the future of locally-funded current programs and its clients in jeopardy.

Proponents of Senate Bill 550, an act to establish “judicially managed accountability and recovery courts,” say the measure would increase accessibility to specialty courts and create statewide guidelines and minimum standards under which each program must operate.

“The goal is to build a training model based on that very inclusive but purposefully drafted, simple template, not to change anything necessarily, but to build on a training model that is accessible to all,” said Judge Joe Buckner, of Orange County, who wrote the bill.

Judge Marvin Pope

There are currently about four dozen specialty courts in 38 North Carolina counties. This includes family drug treatment courts, adult drug treatment courts, youth drug treatment courts, DWI courts, mental health courts, veterans treatment courts, and one tribal court.

Opponents of SB550 say it’s ill-motivated, could lead to the dismantling of the current specialty courts and would create a “one size fits all” solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. They’ve also said that needs in each of the state’s 100 counties are vastly different and not every locality has the resources to support such courts.

“My veterans ask me at every court session ‘What is going to happen to us?,’” said Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope, of Buncombe County, who runs a veterans treatment court. “I tell them that we are trying to save what we have, and that I will continue to work for them as long as I have my black ‘pajamas.’”

Understanding the bill

SB550 raises far more issues and questions than it provides answers.

It’s an agency bill requested by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) – which also has not provided many answers to specific questions about the legislation. It makes changes to the drug treatment statute and is sponsored by Sen. Shirley Randleman (R-Stokes, Surry, Wilkes).

Sen. Shirley Randleman

The first noticeable change it makes is to replace “drug treatment courts” with “accountability and recovery courts.” It’s not clear what the difference between the terms is or why a change is necessary.

The bill essentially creates one overarching, AOC-managed accountability and recovery court.

It would establish a committee headed by the AOC director or a designee that would consist of no less than seven members appointed by the director and “broadly representative of the courts, law enforcement, corrections, juvenile justice, Child Protective Services and substance abuse communities.”

The committee would develop and recommend guidelines to the AOC director and monitor local accountability and recovery courts. The bill is unclear as to how it would affect current specialty courts, but guidelines promulgated by this committee could determine the future of the programs.

Each locality that established accountability and recovery courts under SB550 would also be required to create its own committee with members appointed by the chief district court judge and the district attorney for that district. The local committee would develop local guidelines and procedures, not inconsistent with the state guidelines and minimum standards.

Current law already requires certain standards and guidelines that these specialty courts must follow in order to operate. The bill appears to just change who is in charge and who can serve on the local committees with regard to those provisions.

Other provisions of the bill mandate that the AOC provide funding for the judicially managed accountability and recovery courts and facilitate the creation and administration of such courts. The AOC is funded by the General Assembly.

The accountability and recovery courts could only consist of programs the AOC approves of, according to the bill. The AOC and the statewide committee the bill establishes would develop the criteria for eligibility, minimum standards and other procedural and substantive guidelines for the courts.


Pope is concerned SB550 was crafted with the intention of abolishing specialty courts altogether. He bases this concern on a prior interaction with AOC Director Judge Marion Warren.

Warren, who has did not respond to multiple requests through the AOC to be interviewed about SB550, allegedly told Pope that he didn’t believe there should be veterans treatment court unless it was established in every county in the state.

Pope pointed out that not all areas could support such a court given access or lack thereof to veterans’ resources.

“It has to be done where you have VA medical facilities, where you have state veteran facilities; it’s got to be done where you can reach out and have the resources, and counties can’t afford it,” Pope said. “Well, we butted heads like two old bulls in a pasture over a fat cow. He and I just did not get along at all about veterans court or specialty courts.”

Judicial districts are not currently prohibited from establishing specialty courts, but it takes a financial commitment and requires a great deal of multidisciplinary collaboration to leverage available resources.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a retired chief District Court judge, said resources in different parts of the state are vastly different and that flexibility is necessary to successfully manage specialty courts.

She called SB550’s “one size fits all” approach “ridiculous” and said it appears to be part of the AOC’s new push to have one way of doing things.

“This is happening in everything,” she added. “The courts are totally silent on everything except raise the age [legislation].”

Sharon Gladwell, a spokeswoman for the AOC, said SB550 “aims to again provide uniform court services by developing guidelines and minimum standards.”

Follow-up questions about what exactly the bill would do and why it was necessary were not answered.

Buckner said when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin was running for office, he told him if he was elected he would ask the judge to build out recovery courts that were sustainable – which is ultimately what led to SB550.

“I don’t know much about it, but I know it works and I know it’s important,” Buckner said Martin told him.

Martin did not return a request for comment.

Lack of clarity

Buckner said if the bill passes, he thinks the next 18 to 24 months would be focused on figuring out how the statewide program would work.

“I envision it as an umbrella over everything that already exists; nothing goes away; nothing gets torn down; nothing stops,” he said.

His vision also includes current specialty court officials, case managers and treatment officials becoming part of the presenting faculty to build the larger network of accountability and recovery courts.

The wave of concern among judges with specialty courts is that none of Buckner’s vision to keep current programs running is written into the bill. It’s intentionally vague, Buckner said, adding he didn’t believe concrete answers to those concerns needed to be part of the legislation.

When pushed on whether someone with motives that weren’t aligned with his vision could do harm with the bill, Bucker said it was a cynic’s way of looking at things. He added that the bill’s broad language was necessary to improve courts, grow and measure success along the way.

Gladwell could provide no further clarity on what the bill, if passed, would mean for the state’s current specialty courts.

“At this time we do not know how this legislation will specifically impact each of the specialty courts until they are measured against evidence-based best practices that would be established statewide,” she added.

Randleman did not respond to a request to be interviewed about the the bill and instead sent this summary:

“SB550 is an agency bill requested by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The bill modifies existing state law with the goal of providing recovery assistance to more people statewide. Rather than having a patchwork of different programs, the Administrative Office of the Courts would like to create a uniform statewide system to address substance abuse and mental health, discourage repeat offenses, coordinate the use of resources, and encourage accountability. With passage of this legislation those judicial districts who have established programs would need to comply with standards, procedures and guidelines as developed by the State Judicially Managed Accountability and Recovery Court Advisory Committee.”

Drug court success

No one who was interviewed for this report disputed the success of specialty courts.

The first drug treatment court in North Carolina was created in 1995, and before the courts were defunded in 2011, the state produced annual reports about the programs. The last report was in 2011 and highlighted the success of the courts.

“After 15 years of operation, drug treatment court graduates are remaining drug and alcohol free, raising healthy children, participating in their communities, attending and completing school, working, paying taxes and not recidivating,” the report states.

There are typically two models that specialty courts follow. Pre-adjudication is when a defendant is diverted into a specialty court program to avoid prosecution. Defendants who complete the program requirements are not prosecuted. Post-adjudication is when a defendant pleads guilty but their sentence is deferred or suspended while they complete a specialty court program. If they are successful, their sentences can be waived or the charge can be expunged.

Nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).

Pope, whose veterans treatment court is post-adjudication, said in regular criminal court, about 60 percent of defendants re-offend compared to about 30 percent nationally in drug treatment court programs. Less than 10 percent of clients in the Buncombe County drug treatment court re-offend, he added.

Less than three percent of veterans in special court programs re-offend, Pope said. Some veterans treatment courts across the nation boast a zero percent recidivism rate, according to a Stanford University Law School report.

Michelle White, Principal Court Management Consultant for the National Center for State Courts, said drug courts are very much focused on high-risk, high-need people.

The structure of such courts varies state to state but the research and foundation behind them is all the same. There are national best practices and guidelines that are usually tweaked by states or localities to fit their court needs.

White, who doesn’t have experience in North Carolina politics, said it’s fairly rare for drug treatment courts to have one stable funding source – as is proposed under SB550.

The good and the bad

Franklin Freeman

Franklin Freeman, an attorney at McGuire Woods who was a former AOC director and state Supreme Court justice, said the state Constitution requires a unified system of justice.

“What ought to happen is, if you’re going to have courts of this type, they ought to be made available to everybody across the state whether [they] want them or not, because the Constitution says the courts are to be unified and uniform,” he said.

It may not be fair, “but the Constitution has got to be followed,” Freeman added.

He didn’t deny that the local drug courts do a good job, but there was a time when they were state-funded and the system needs to get back to that model.

SB550, like many pieces of legislation, highlights tensions between rural and urban communities – uniformity vs. local rules.

“That’s a story that gets played out over and over again,” said UNC School of Government Professor James Drennan.

Drennan, who maintains a neutral position on legislative issues, said drug treatment courts have a very different model of doing justice than regular courts. It often draws a dividing line among judicial officials about what role the court should take in problem solving.

Drennan doesn’t have intimate knowledge of SB550 but upon a brief review of the bill said he didn’t believe there was any specific language to inhibit local jurisdictions from continuing their programs.

New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening said he believes SB550 will be a good thing.

“I think just bringing treatment courts back to North Carolina as a state court function, because that’s what it’s supposed to be, is a good thing,” he said.

Corpening said he is trying to pre-position his specialty court team to be first in line for state funding if SB550 becomes law. He was under the impression that if the bill passes, it would be fully funded by the General Assembly.

“With Sen. Randleman as the lead sponsor, I have to believe they’re already talking about money,” he added.

If passing the bill without funding meant the elimination of specialty courts, Corpening said he would not be a proponent.

“We desperately need [specialty courts],” he added. “I’ve got to have it.”

Buckner did not respond to a follow-up question about funding for SB550. The Senate is likely to release its budget as early as next week.

Pope sent a letter about his SB550 concerns to Chief Justice Martin in late April. He said this week he has yet to hear back. Another provision of SB550 that Pope is worried about would prohibit superior court judges from being involved in accountability and recovery courts.

He was passionate as he bragged about the success of his veterans treatment court and talked about how much time and soul he poured into the program.

Pope and his team were asked to present the court model this summer at the NADCP annual training conference in Washington D.C. It’s the world’s largest conference on treatment courts and criminal justice reform and is estimated to accommodate about 5,000 stakeholders.

“It’s going to really look good for me to go up there and say the AOC director dissolved our courts, so we really don’t have what we worked so hard to get,” Pope said.

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