By Chris Adams

In a courtroom in the eastern part of San Diego County, Judge Selena Epley cycles through more than 30 defendants in about an hour – a typical pace in her busy court.

And all of them had one thing in common: They had been arrested for a drug-related crime. Epley was there to oversee not punishment but recovery, hopefully steering them to the kind of treatment and supervision that would allow them to avoid repeat trips into California’s judicial system.

In San Diego, as well as other jurisdictions in California and across the country, specialized drug courts are designed to provide an alternative to traditional criminal prosecution for non-violent drug-related offenses. The courts combine judicial oversight and monitoring with probation supervision and substance abuse treatment services. The goals are to reduce recidivism and substance abuse among substance offenders and increase their chance of successful rehabilitation.

In California, they are known as “collaborative justice courts” or “problem-solving courts.” There are several other types: domestic violence courts, driving under the influence courts, elder abuse courts, homeless courts, mental health courts, reentry courts and veterans courts.

In a site visit to Epley’s drug court, a group of National Press Foundation fellows observed the court in action. Epley’s day had started with a team meeting that included prosecutors, public defenders, substance abuse officials and parole officers. All worked together to devise a plan for those coming before the court.

The people before her court were not “defendants” but “participants.” The judge, the other team members and others on the docket that day cheered and clapped as – one-by-one – participants stepped before the judge and told of their successes.

While a few appeared in handcuffs or chains, having come straight from jail because of a violation of their contract with the drug court, most were doing well. Many touted their time off drugs: 127 days, 550 days, 153 days, 82 days.

Judge Desirée Bruce-Lyle oversees several such courts – including Epley’s – for California Superior Court in San Diego County. The courts are becoming more prevalent in California, and most of them are based on the drug court model.

“The whole idea is to change the way we’ve been thinking about criminal justice and criminal defendants,” she said. “We are looking for more effective ways of dealing with criminal offenders.”

Do they work? Bruce-Lyle said they do, and that recidivism rates are favorable. Participants know that if they violate their contracts with the drug court, they’ll be met next with a criminal sentence.

“The offenders are given an opportunity to change their lives,” she said.