By Alan Bean
If you’re like me, Ira Glass is the seductive, soft-spoken storyteller you occasionally encounter while working in the garage on a Saturday afternoon. This America Life is captivating radio. Ira Glass pulls us into a story with unadorned language. He speaks without exclamation points or rhetorical flourishes, but you can’t stop listening. The other day I was painting some lawn furniture I had rescued from a neighbor’s lawn (he was throwing it out, I promise!) when This America Life came on. I was disappointed to learn that Ira Glass had ceded his microphone to a guest storyteller and pictured the unassuming Ira catching a few rays in the Bahamas. But I was wrong. Ira was down in Georgia, putting the finishing touches to an hour-long expose of Amanda Williams, a Superior Court judge who suffers from a peculiarly American form of madness.
Here’s a summary of the Part 1:
Ira reports from Glynn County Georgia on Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams and how she runs the drug courts in Glynn, Camden and Wayne counties. We hear the story of Lindsey Dills, who forges two checks on her parents’ checking account when she’s 17, one for $40 and one for $60, and ends up in drug court for five and a half years, including 14 months behind bars, and then she serves another five years after that—six months of it in Arrendale State Prison, the other four and a half on probation. The average drug court program in the U.S. lasts 15 months. But one main way that Judge Williams’ drug court is different from most is how punitive it is. Such long jail sentences are contrary to the philosophy of drug court, as well as the guidelines of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. For violating drug court rules, Lindsey not only does jail terms of 51 days, 90 days and 104 days, Judge Williams sends her on what she calls an “indefinite sentence,” where she did not specify when Lindsey would get out.
Just when you’re hoping that the plight of Lindsey Dills might be an aberration, Ira Glass moves on to Part 2:
We hear about how Brandi Byrd and many other offenders end up in Judge Williams’ drug court. One reason drug courts were created was to save money by incarcerating fewer people. But in Judge Williams’ program, people like Brandi end up in drug court—at a cost of $350 per month—who would’ve simply gotten probation in most other Georgia counties. When offenders like Brandi are kicked out of the program—and half of participants in Judge Williams’ drug court program don’t successfully complete it—they go into detention, at a cost of $17,000 per year. Brandi did two years.
The program concludes with the story of model drug court participant, Charlie McCullough. Charlie sailed through the first 22 months of his two-year drug court stint before a routine UI came up dirty. When Charlie insisted he was clean, a second test was taken. This one came up negative, as did a third test, taken just to be sure. But on the strength of the initial test, Judge Williams sent Charlie to prison for two years. She might have been more lenient, but Charlie questioned the justice, and logic, of her bizarre ruling.
Amanda Williams is the face of America. She thinks drug addicts need a little tough love. This works fine so long as defendants are trembling in fear at Judge Amanda’s feet. But if she detects the slightest hint of resistance, Williams becomes implacable, determined to show the world who’s boss.
This “I’ll-show-you” mentality has driven the war on drugs for years. It is assumed that, if we only get tough enough, indigent drug dealers will start filling out applications at McDonald’s and drug addicts will miraculously go clean. Addiction and social alienation don’t work that way. In fact, this punitive approach often sparks a surly defiance that sends ignorant young people like Brandi Byrd, Charlie McCollough and Lindsey Dills into a self-destructive death spiral.
After a break, Ira Glass tosses off a revealing aside.
Before we go any further: something that’s going to affect what you hear this hour, is that it was unusually hard to get people to talk to me for this story. Over and over I’d learn about something Judge Williams had supposedly said or done and I’d go to the lawyers or litigants involved and they’d refuse to speak to me. Saying they were scared of retaliation.Which, to be fair, would probably happen around lots of judges, all over the country. In Glynn Country, though, it was widespread: ex employees of the court, people who’d come up before the judge on divorce proceedings or other business years ago, parents and family members of people who went before Judge Williams. Nobody wanted to cross her.
If Ira Glass spent more time hanging covering small town justice, this sort of craven silence would be all too familiar. When I see that deer-in-the-headlights look in the eyes of low-level legal functionaries I know something is dreadfully amiss. Everybody feels like a cog in a sick machine, but the first person to admit the truth is courting professional disaster. So its shoulder-to-the-wheel and zipper-the-lip.
The problem in Glynn County Georgia isn’t one bad-apple judge, and the problem in America isn’t the egregious cadre of judicial and prosecutorial miscreants who make their peers look good in comparison. The big problem is that the system is broken and nobody has the guts to say so. The Glynn County edition of This American Life doesn’t preach or whine, but no one listening to these dreadful stories can feel the same about the war on drugs. Please check it out. You can read or listen.