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Live, Raw and Very Emotional: Drug Court TV

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By Maylon T. Rice

Justice may be blind, but the Washington and Madison Drug Court has apparently found some success in its effort to discourage drug abuse with the unblinking eye: television.

If you’ve never stopped to catch the local Drug Court TV while flipping through the channels on local cable television, you may, many veteran television viewers say, be in a very small minority.

Drug Court TV, a production of the Washington and Madison County Drug Court and a bevy of local agencies and sponsors, is riveting television.

“Yes, it’s real. Very real.” said Judge Mary Ann Gunn of Fayetteville, the jurist, who is often at the “eye” of the television proceedings.

But it’s not some Culver City, California, studio production created to show personal and legal conflicts played out for studio audiences.  These are real people with real problems with needs to be addressed with real justice.

While Hollywood has been successful with its pseudo-legal shows spouting the same mantra of “real people – real cases,” Washington and Madison Drug Court TV holds back literally nothing from the public view.

The strain of the burden of navigating the labyrinth layers of the legal system and the white-water rapids of righting their personal lives shows in those standing before the judge. It’s raw emotion. There are no directors yelling cut and no makeup artists or wardrobe stylists to make things look different than they really are.

There is no central leading lady like Judge Judy with her sidekick bailiff arguing over which former boyfriend or girlfriend borrowed money from the other. There is no fast-talking East Coaster actress like Lynn Toler or her former home grown Divorce Court predecessor Mablean Ephriam dispensing justice over a cheating spouse. And despite all his homespun humor, there is not much laughter or banter like Judge Joe Brown likes to inject into his cases.

Judge Gunn’s Drug Court TV positions local folks who have placed themselves and their families in harm’s way on center stage as they battle their life-threatening addition to drugs. There are lots of tears, fits of rage and sign after sign of the impact that drug abuse has in our communities.

Since 1999, when the Drug Court was formed, Judge Gunn began volunteering at least one full day a week, to the brisk, but marathon proceedings. The concept of a Drug Court that focuses on those in the criminal judicial system charged with drug offenses, is intended to involve participants – all with substance abuse problems – to get control over their addictions, be held accountable for their criminal actions and right their lives. But along the way, Judge Gunn and the Drug Court team – prosecutors, police, sheriff and even state police officers, civil and legal advocates, area drug treatment center staffers, mental health officials, elected officials (of every political subdivision) and a bevy of volunteers – have seen the need to educate the public, especially young people about the dangers of drug abuse. And there is no better education than Drug Court TV.

Drug Court TV is aired on the Jones Television Network and the Fayetteville government channel. The camera and court, in the Drug Court team’s way of thinking, can and is a deterrent to young people.

“Drug Court TV and the programs taking Drug Court into local schools have proven to be a good thing for young people to see,” Judge Gunn said in a recent telephone interview. “We have got to target the age of induction- that age when children are being drawn from experimenting with alcohol into drugs.”

“We are trying to break that cycle, but it is a tough cycle,” Judge Gunn said. “All of us know that there are lots of prevention examples out there. But often prevention posters, rallies and even some law enforcement sweeps are not always enough. School administrators know this is a tough cycle for this age. Young people, parents know it is a hard cycle. Law Enforcement knows it is hard cycle. But when meth enters that cycle – it is even harder to break.”

The viewer gets a jury box view of the court proceeding. The offenders are called before the judge one, after the other, to speak for themselves about their transgressions or their progress in the program.

“Learning to stand up for one’s self is part of the process,” Judge Gunn said. “It’s all part of their treatment in this program – going to meetings, meeting the criteria and speaking up for themselves and turning their lives around.”

Drug Court and the televised programs address the “vain” side of society, Judge Gunn acknowledged. “Let’s face it, a drug addition does not make you a pretty young lady or a handsome young man.

“They don’t care about their complexion, their hair or their clothes, all they care about is the meth,”

With a dental condition known as “meth mouth,” chronic meth users can lose a majority – if not all – of his or her teeth.

Often when the Drug Court members step to the microphone Judge Gunn will acknowledge how “good” they look after they have completed detox and are on their way to kicking their drug habits.

Some Drug Court members can’t overcome their addiction and some have passed away. Recently, several Drug Court participants were found to have fallen off the wagon and engaged in a wild night of drinking.

Another time one member substituted a urine sample from someone else, but was found out. Both parties in the attempted switcharoo, were prosecuted for their attempt to circumvent their signed entry into the program and for breaking the law.

On another occasion, one Drug Court participant was beaten in a local jail after he named his supplier in a court proceeding aired on Drug Court TV.

Judge Gunn and those who work to keep the Drug Court program consider it a real benefit for parents who need a venue to actually discuss what delving into drug use and the related legal, social, economic and familial issues, can be.

“I think seeing actual people here in Washington and Madison County and the problems their drug use causes them as individuals—loss of jobs, loss of family,
time spent in jail, and a hundred other issues—is something parents can use to show their children drug use is serious in so many ways,” Judge Gunn said.

Week after week, there is a starkness to the show—participants in jail scrubs, nervously wringing their hands, crying, jabbering uncontrollably—but there are also some breakthroughs to be found.

“We hope people can see that these participants can and do turn their lives around,” Judge Gunn said.

On one recent show, a middle-aged man, after 16 years of addiction to meth, graduated from the program clean and sober. He offered a few words to those in the program: Stay the course and do not give up.

Drug Court TV differs from other cable, public access and government programs, because it is more about the workings of the legal system and how a pre-adjudication program can make a difference in people’s lives, in a community and help stem the tide of drug addiction.

“Drug Court on TV, we all hope is a deterrent to the culture of drug abuse and drug use,” Judge Gunn said. “And the program, certainly is educational, on several
levels. It is about the Washington Madison County Drug Court Program and the legal system, but most importantly this whole process is about people – and helping turn a person’s life around and help them live a better, drug free life. If an appearance on Drug Court TV does that or a child, young person or adult, makes the decision not to do illegal drugs due to their fear of being on Drug Court TV, well, that too is a good thing.”

What is Drug Court?

The Arkansas Legislature has designed a new method to help drug users avoid jail time and an opportunity to clean up their lives with a new tier of courts – called Drug Court.

Act 1266 of 2003 outlines the Drug Court Program as a highly structured Judicial intervention process for substance abuse treatment of eligible offenders, which requires successful completion of the Drug Court program in lieu of incarceration.

Each judicial district is authorized to have such a program like the Washington and Madison County Drug Court.

A Drug Court program is not be available to any defendant who has a pending violent criminal charge against them. The Drug Courts can be post- or pre-adjudication. The Washington and Madison County Drug
Court is a pre-adjudication process. A Drug Court team is made up of the circuit judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney and one or more addiction counselors who have an understanding of drug addiction.

Each offender or member the program is a voluntary participant in the program. All drug court programs are required to keep data on recidivism, relapse, restarts, sanctions imposed and incentives give to all participants.

Drug Court Numbers

833
Have participated in the Drug Court program since its inception in 1999 in Northwest Arkansas.

139
Have been denied entry into the program – largely because they did not meet the rigorous criteria to enter the program.

116
Participants who have been terminated from the program for non-compliance or other reasons.

39
People who have returned to the program, after being terminated from the program and are now active in the program again.

510
Graduates of the program. Graduation requires that members are drug-free, alcohol-free, completed all counseling, paid all court fees, fines
and adjusted their lifestyle, so as not to spiral back into their former lifestyle.

154
Active participants in the current Drug Court program as of February 2002.

4
Current Drug Court participants involved in a long-term residential care program for their treatment as an initial step in the program.

6
Number of Drug Court participants in area jails. Incarceration can be a part of the treatment process, however some are there as part of their initial arrest or for other crimes.

44
Number of individuals pending transition from their situation (jail, out on bond pending trial, at a local drug or alcohol treatment facility) waiting to get into the Drug Court program.

6 or 7
Estimated number of criminal charges each participant in the Drug Court had pending against them when they were accepted into the program. The nearly 200 participants have an estimated total of almost 1,200 criminal charges on the court books.

18
Number of times each school year that Drug Court visits and holds Drug Court at area junior high and high schools. (By invitation from the schools).

6 Comments

Cathy Wilson (Byrd) April 7, 2007 at 8:33 am

Hi Maylon.This is ur long lost cousin Cathy. My husbands cousin Kevin Jones and his gf was murdered in fayettville and I started thinking that you were living there. Not sure if you do but thought I would check to see.Are you any kin to kendell.This is so heart breaking for this family.email me back if you get the time.Cathy

Reply to this comment
tammy October 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Dear Judge Gunn,
I inadvertently found your show last night upon having found myself awake in the middle of the night. I was most impressed by the structure of the program. I was also impressed by the level of commitment of the staff. On a more personal level there is no doubt why I developed a chemical dependency. Early childhood trauma which lead to defiance (call it an emotional “survival skill” if you will) which lead to the use of chemicals. As a survivor of (sexual) trauma meth seemed to be “a perfect fit,”…hyper-vigilance regarding my environment (safety is an issue for survivors), and increased physical strength and stamina (keeping one’s “self” safe). My belief is that “many” will open up regarding possible family trauma if given an emotionally supportive environment in which to do so. A client will then be given the opportunity to establish healthy relationships after a period of celibacy, or abstinence. My thought is that early intervention is the key,…preferably teens or early twenties. This would help “break the cycle” of chemical dependency, and the abuse of our most vulnerable in society. Your work amazes me,…once again very thorough!!!
sincerely,
tammy

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Nancy July 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Speaking from being a former employee of drug court I continue to follow along on the computer. I have much admiration for Judge Gunn and stay that for as long as I have been a counselor I have never seen any individual sitting on the bench that has such compassion for the individuals that appear before her as she does. The first time I witnessed her removed herself from behind the bench to give a client a hug while in court brought tears to my eyes. I have never witnessed that before. Most Judges could care less about those who are in their courtroom whereas Judge Gunn truly goes. I must also say that the entire staff that works for Washington, Madison County are truly remarkable individuals. My hat off to you all. Keep up the hard work, and for those who think that we just sit on our butts to collect a paycheck you better think again or walk in our shoes for a day to find out what goes into being a part of a team.

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