Mendo’s Drug Court

by Bruce McEwen, May 19, 2010

When a man drinks he neglects the obeisance he must pay to those to whom he is beholden, all the feigned little niceties society expects become hilarious rather than humiliating. After a couple of drinks his friends find him insightful and entertaining. But after three or four, he forgets the cause of the debts and sorrows he burdened himself with the last time he was in his cups, and all too soon he becomes a cesspool of self-pity, a belligerent bulletproof tower of indigna­tion, and eventually, after a nightcap, a maudlin song­ster capable of infinite poignancy. When a woman drinks, that pragmatic creature’s clothes merely come off — quick, bartender, another round for all these old soldiers and barflies.

The merry month of May is Drug Court Month, by a curious coincidence. A proclamation in a glass display case at the Mendocino County Courthouse says so. It’s a sumptuous page of Egyptian cotton parchment, printed in literally purple prose and embossed with a dazzling royal blue ribbon. This noble document was the brainchild of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and it is subscribed in the ink of Board Chair Carre Brown’s elegant hand. But the structure of Drug Court is too slippery for my slender abilities to grasp. I don’t quite understand it.

Now, before the many thousands of regional experts line up to explain away all my ignorance on the subject, let me clarify: The essential reasoning of the Drug Court is founded on the idea that people are capable of change. This is simple enough for even me to apprehend. But a great many thinkers, all the way from Plato to James Hillman, the current authority, and including the editorial board of this highly respected publication, tend to disagree. The contrary view is that the personality is completely formed by the time we are about seven years old, and from that point on we grow more and more set in our ways. This school of thought rejects any given person’s re-inven­tion of themselves as a masquerade undertaken for personal gain. And instances of this devious ruse abound locally. So when I say I don’t understand the structure of the Drug Court, I’m not soliciting an ear­ful of received opinion from the school of social sci­ences. And I’m not toying with Socratic irony, either. I’m merely underscoring the predilection of all sound philosophy, which teaches that we should never pre­sume to understand the ancient mysteries of human behavior.

Ostensibly, the Drug Court is a more formal approach to the Alcoholics Anonymous model for recovery from addiction to drugs. AA was founded on the same kind of epiphany Joseph Smith claims inspired the Book of Mormon. The highly successful 12 Steps came to “Bill” in an alcoholic stupor, by his own account, and has gone on to “save” countless drunks. The 12 Steps proved useful for drug addicts as well as drunks, and soon Narcotics Anonymous was founded on the same inspiration “Bill” was privy to. The only reason the 12 Steps hasn’t cured us all, is that AA and NA are mostly elective programs and lots of folks don’t want to surrender the bottle or the needle. This is where the Drug Court comes in.

Judges have been ordering people to go to AA and NA for years as a condition of their probation. My third wife ordered me to go as a condition of our sleeping arrangements. She worked for the county mental health in the capacity of a psychologist assigned to the courthouse. Over lattes and croissants, she recommended to a generation of judges that AA and NA for a great many defendants would get them fully back into the consumer sweepstakes; she’s probably personally responsible for what sobriety there is in Montana. In Montana, the influence of social service professionals, such as psychologists and therapists, began in the early 1980s, when I was mar­ried to one, but it probably had its inception in Cali­fornia courts. Mendocino County was probably among the first to bring the concept of disease to what was previously understood to be shameless indulgence.

As a result, the social services cadre, not to men­tion their attorney brethren and sistren, has become permanently attached to the courts, and rakes in a good share of the county’s budget and the state’s as well.

Since the early 1980s the country’s social services have been appended to the courts. The chronically homeless in Mendocino County are ushered by the social science professionals at AODP (Alcohol and Other Drug Programs) into a variety of temporary housing arrangements, all dependent on the individ­ual’s ability to get off drugs or alcohol and go back to work.

The phrase ‘get off drugs and alcohol’ may be a lit­tle misleading. It has been my experience that the drug and alcohol abuse in question can only be sus­pended, and that a rigorous determination on the part of the individual and a support network of other “clean and sober” people in “recovery” is required to keep the abuse suspended.

Why? To make these unfortunate and unsuccess­ful souls productive members of the very same dys­functional society that drove them to drugs and drink in the first place, of course!

The truism that “life is not fair” really means is soci­ety is not fair because the ruthless, and especially the lucky, are treated better in our society. In Amer­ica, it is especially true that the few make their for­tune off the drudgery of the many. The danger is that the many will refuse to do the drudgery for an ever-diminishing pittance, get loaded to the gills and flop around on the streets like so many dying and rotting carp. Hence, the uniform of the next revolution will be the dirty rags of the homeless bum. In former times, an overseer wielding a bullwhip would drive the shiftless back to work, but in our more enlightened age, slavery has been abolished. Again, this is where the Drug Court comes in.

Assistant DA Elizabeth “Beth” Norman suggested coverage of the Mendocino County Drug Court Pro­gram as something “positive” I could report on. I wasn’t looking for something “positive” to report on, but my admiration for Ms. Norman is too sincere to ignore such a modest request, so I hied my pen and pad up to Judge Clayton Brennan’s Drug Court last Friday afternoon.

Judge Brennan has taken over the Drug Court from the Honorable David Nelson. Brennan seems a good choice because he seems to be undergoing a change for the better himself. Long considered a mar­ginally competent magistrate given to frivolous deci­sions, Brennan appears to have grown on the job, a job he got when his well-connected wife, the former mayor of Ukiah, mobilized Mendolib to get him the position. (Mendolib has been similarly mobilized this election for Ann Moorman. Mendolib seems more inclined to monarchical succession than democratic elections but that's a subject more for the editorial board where it's constantly remarked.) Despite the many vials of acid I have personally flung at him in my short time covering the courts, Brennan came down from the bench and chatted with me as amiably and openly as anyone in the court system ever has; and I was warmly impressed by so congenial a gesture. Moreover, he seems thoroughly dedicated to his work with the Drug Court.

“We’re addressing the root of the problem in a healing way,” Judge Brennan said. He spoke with the conviction of a man who believes in his work. He admitted he didn’t understand all the legal niceties of whether the Drug Court was open to the public. Since it is a part of an individual’s probation there were some issues of propriety. “For instance,” he said, “a conversation between a probation officer and a person on probation certainly wouldn’t be in public, and this a part of their probation.” But he welcomed me and encouraged me to report on the proceedings in any way I wished.

Attorney Eric Rennert of the public defender’s office joined the conversation. I must have looked emotionally needy because Rennert assured me, “Everybody at the PD’s office doesn’t dislike you.” Mr. Rennert, like Judge Brennan, also sees inspiring results and takes heart in the accomplishments of the Drug Court.

Ms. Norman was absent; Deputy DA Heidi Lar­son was attending in her stead. Ms. Larson is usually as tenaciously grim as a combat platoon commander, which is understandable since she prosecutes some of the worst cases of sexual assault and domestic vio­lence. But in this setting she was cheerful and friendly.

The lawyers had the tables turned, so they faced the gallery of participants, rather than His Honor. They called individual cases, all listed on the calendar, and reviewed their progress in the program. It was much like an awards ceremony, and in a way, it was. There was even some mock drama, which lightened the mood significantly.

A woman’s name was called and she came to stand at the rail.

“May we approach, your honor,” Mr. Rennert asked with a cloud of concern on his face. The lawyers went up to the desk and a whispered conference ensued. The woman at the rail waited with incipient hope and dread, struggling by turns to re-compose her features. The discussion at the bench might have been about how the Padres had just swept the Giants by the looks on the lawyers’ faces, but after a few min­utes they went back to their tables.

Judge Brennan said, “We’ve decided you’re doing just fine!” An unanimous laugh of relief filled the room. “Go ahead and put your name in,” Brennan said. She put her name in a box for a drawing. A diploma was presented to a round of applause and the next name was called.

“How’s this going for you,” the judge asked the man.

“Good,” the man answered.

“Well, that’s the report I’ve been getting as well. Are you still working?”

“Yes. I’ve had steady work.”

“That’s good. Go ahead and put your name in, and your return date is the 28th.”

“The next fellow wasn’t doing as good. Apparently, he’d walked in stoned. The bailiff promptly cuffed him and sat him apart in the jury box.

“Are you alright?” Brennan asked.

The man didn’t answer.

Brennan said, “I’m not going to have you make any statements in open court you might regret later.”

Stoned Dude was taken away to jail. A great com­munal sigh of disappointment and exasperation filled the courtroom.

“That’s a particularly sad one for me,” Brennan said. “I’ve known him since he was a little boy, a friend of my son’s.”

Another name was called.

“How’s things going at the college?” Brennan asked this next young woman.

“Very good,” she reported.

“Remember, this is your number one priority — you’re doing good, you’re fine; there’s not a problem. But I just want you to stay focused. And return on June 11th. Go ahead and put your name in.”

Another man was called forward.

“How was your time in custody?” Brennan wanted to know.

“Just a reality check, your honor. Everybody talks about getting high, and it really brought it home to me, what a waste it all is.”

“Okay, I just wanted to remind you that you have a meeting on Monday and your return date is May 21st.”

The next man had a fish in his pocket, delighting everyone.

“That’s great,” Brennan said. “You’re fulfilling a tra­dition and that’s a lot of responsibility. You’re doing good, but you have a lot of community service you need to finish.”

“I’m going to get right on that this week, Your Honor.”

“I think you’re going to have to set up a schedule. There’s only 24 hours in a day, and you need to be plugging away at this.”

The man put his name in.

Brennan said, “That concludes the calendar for this week, let’s have the drawing.”

One of the participants reached into the coffee can and drew out his own name. “Again”— someone groaned.

For the third week in a row!” another jealous voice added.

Then Brennan took off his robe and descended the bench, stepping out of his judicial role with the refreshing nonchalance of a man who takes his job seriously but not himself. He was smiling at having done something worthwhile, happy to end a week of sifting and sorting through the shortcomings of humanity and saving a few. Keep ’em sober and focused, toiling in the vineyards of consumerism.

On the bus back to Boonville, many of the passen­gers seemed to be self-medicating, getting through their days the pharmacotheraputic way. One couple had been drinking, others had been smoking, one was on meth, the rest on Prozac or Valium or Vicodin.


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