Apr. 15, 2011

Ira Responds to Judge Williams' Press Release

Ira writes:

In the last two days, Judge Amanda Williams has decided to respond at length, publicly, to my story about her drug court. A law professor representing Judge Amanda Williams issued a press release yesterday saying that my story about her was "riddled with falsehoods" and "libel masquerading as journalism." Today he publicly released the 14-page letter he sent me.

For all the minutiae presented in these two documents, Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel don't dispute and barely address at all the main two points of my story or the evidence I provide to back up those points. Those two main points:

1) Judge Williams' drug court uses punitive sanctions for relapses and other broken rules which are harsher than any other drug court I—or the national experts interviewed for the show, who were familiar with hundreds of drug courts across the country—could find. These jail sanctions—3 days for a first relapse when a defendant doesn't admit he's still using, 7 days for a second relapse, 28 days for a third relapse, and "indefinite detention" after that—not only go against national guidelines set by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, researchers (and the head of the NADCP) told me that studies show they would not work with addicts. They run counter to the core philosophy of drug court.

2) Judge Williams' court uses a variety of means that other drug courts don't to encourage defendants to sign up for drug court.

Although Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel claim that there's "a litany of factual errors" in the radio broadcast, the only errors they found were in something I posted on our website. I corrected these once I was informed of the errors. There is no "litany of errors."

My attorneys are responding to Mr. Oedel's letter with one of their own.

For now, I'll confine my comments to his press release.

Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams state that "Glass was looking for someone his listeners could hate, and when the facts didn't fit, he just made them up to make the protagonist hateful." This isn't true. I made up no facts. I stumbled onto this story, and followed the facts where they led. I have no interest in making anyone seem hateful and in fact my story points out Judge Williams' idealism, her good intentions and her great success with many drug court participants. In the story, I quote one who says she saved his life. I would have liked very much to include more from the Judge's perspective, and I wrote her many letters saying this, but once she was re-elected this fall, she declined both my interview requests and my repeated requests to record in her courtroom.

Regular listeners to our radio show know that it's overwhelmingly comprised of stories where there is no one to hate. If anything, that's a hallmark of the show. Yes, when it came to the Wall Street meltdown (and my comments about our coverage, referenced by Mr. Oedel), we did at one point go looking for stories of bankers who did things that were illegal or unethical, as many journalists did. That has nothing to do with this.

In his press release, Mr. Oedel makes a number of statements that I believe are untrue.

He says my story:

"used the recollections of three people who washed out of that treatment program to claim that Judge Williams coerced them into drug court in the first place, and imposed overly punitive (but previously agreed-upon) sentences when they washed out of drug court for driving under the influence and other relapses."

Well, no. In Lindsey Dills' case I go to pains to explain that she was not forced into the drug court program but insisted on it herself. In Charlie McCullough's case I explain that he gladly chose drug court. In Brandi Byrd's case, yes, I point out all the incentives Judge Williams uses that no other drug court seems to use. In their letter and press release, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams say nothing to challenge the accuracy of the facts I included about those incentives.

As for the sentences these three got "when they washed out of drug court"—my story does not discuss whether those are punitive or not. That is not a subject I take up in my report.

Instead, I focus entirely on the sanctions they and other defendants get while in the drug court program. Here, I point out that the sanctions are much higher than those recommended as effective by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and much higher than any drug court I could find. Nothing in Mr. Oedel's press release or letter contests these conclusions or the evidence I present for them.

Mr. Oedel says:

"After Oedel challenged Glass on that claim of no independent judicial review, Glass retracted his allegation on April 11, 2011, admitting on Glass’s website, 'That’s not true.'"

There was no retraction. Mr. Oedell sent his letter. In it he said that my radio story had claimed that there was no appeals process for decisions made in Judge Williams' court. But he was misinterpreting the story. The story did not say that. As I pointed out in my clarification, there's a quote in the story where an attorney, Jim Jenkins, says that there's no procedure to appeal the sanctions the judge levies against you in drug court. If she gives you 28 days for a drug relapse, there's no procedure to compel her to review that decision. A public defender who worked in her drug court confirmed this. I stand by that as factual. I did not retract anything.

But I posted a clarification because two other listeners had asked me about the same thing, was Jenkins saying there was no appeal process at all? He wasn't, and it seemed worth clearing up.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"This is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation, with a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent at three years after concluding treatment."

This "re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent," Mr. Oedel's letter makes clear, comes from a 29-page report issued by Judge Williams' drug court. As best as I can tell, in quoting this number, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams are misreading the Judge's own report. The charts on pages 14 and 21 of the report do indeed show that graduates had a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent for felony non-drug offenses (or perhaps this is for all felony offenses, the report isn't very clear), but when you add in the other offenses measured by the study—non-drug misdemeanors, drug misdemeanors and felony drug offenses—the recidivism re-arrest rate cited by the charts is 30.1 percent, not as impressive when compared to the national averages that Mr. Oedel quotes.

This report does not appear to be the work of an independent researcher, but generated by the drug court staff itself. The copy provided to me had not been peer reviewed or published. Using it as the one piece of evidence to conclude that "this is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation" seems questionable.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"After being challenged by Oedel, Glass also conceded that he erred in reporting that bail in one of his example cases was revoked for the addict’s failure to pay for her drug treatment."

Yes that's true. After Kim Spead sat in jail for eleven months, from September 24, 2003 to August 5, 2004, Judge Williams did finally offer her bail at $15,000 cash. The word "cash" is handwritten and double underlined on the court document, and initialed by Judge Williams.

"Glass admitted that the individual’s bail was revoked for failure to report to court, not for failure to pay a portion of costs for treatment."

Here Mr. Oedel is correct. I misunderstood the sentencing document, which did not state what Kim Spead was being sentenced for. I appreciate the correction and was glad to update it. This was not a fact that was part of our broadcast, but a case I wrote about on our website.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"John Dills, the father of Lindsey Dills, the primary source relied upon by Glass for his story, flatly rejected Glass’s claim that the drug court program hurt his daughter."

Great. And if he'd been willing to talk to me in a taped interview, maybe that's something I could have quoted on the radio. But he turned me down. As to whether Judge Williams' drug court saved his daughter's life or anyone else's, it seems possible it could have saved those lives using sanctions that are more in line with national standards. In Lindsey's case, when one of the sanctions that no other drug court uses—Judge Williams' "indeterminate sentence"—was employed, Lindsey unsuccessfully attempted suicide. More traditional sanctions against Ms. Dills might have avoided that.

As to this:

“Glass is an admitted character assassin who’s not above using his national radio platform for partisan political purposes in the national debate about drug courts, meanwhile trashing a local official whose major offense was to succeed at helping people to get off of drugs, keep off drugs, and survive.”

Let me state here unequivocally: I do not admit to being a character assassin. Also: I am not a character assassin. Further: I have no idea what "partisan political purposes" would be in the national debate over drug courts since, as I point out in my story, both major parties support drug courts. They seem like a fine idea to me as well. My story had nothing to say about the effectiveness of drug courts nationally, except to praise it. My story was about how this particular drug court, run by Judge Williams, is not run like other drug courts. Nothing in Judge Williams' and Mr. Oedel's press release and letter contradicts that.

If Judge Williams wanted to comment on what I found in my research, I wished she had answered my repeated letters and phone calls asking her to do that in my story. If she prefers to respond through press releases then I guess I'll settle for that.

So now I call on her and Mr. Oedel to answer these questions for me in their next press release: When she sentenced Charlie McCullough for his very first drug relapse to 17 days in detention and added a year and a half to his time in the drug court program, this was a much harsher sentence than recommended for a first relapse by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. The NADCP recommends no jail time at all for a first relapse. The NADCP philosophy—articulated in my story by its president—is that more punitive sanctions don't work with addicts. Research shows that more punitive sanctions can backfire and in fact be counter-productive with addicts. Which brings me to my questions: What was the therapeutic goal of this unusually harsh sanction? Why does she believe a sanction so out of line with national standards will be effective? Since it caused Charlie McCullough to give up on the program, does she believe it backfired? Finally: now that she's been informed that the jail sanctions she imposes are far outside the national guidelines, and that research studies show that such measures may be ineffective, will she be eliminating these punitive measures which add an additional burden to taxpayers?