Law & Fiction — revisiting two topics

LAB in the back of a police car at Writers’ Police Academy (2016), smiling because I knew I could get out any time

From time to time, I write about legal issues writers may want to use in their fiction, or mistakes to avoid. I spotted two recent articles on topics I wrote about in Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver, 2011). Whether you’ve read the books or not, you may want to know a little more about when teenagers can be charged as adults, as described in this NPR piece about the teenage shooter in Oxford, Michigan, which provides a good overview. The trend toward “Raise the Age” legislation is new since BCC; many states have now set a presumptive age, typically 17 or 18, at which a juvenile can be charged as an adult; below that, such a charge is still possible but certain criteria must be met.

I also wrote about drug courts, an approach aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders charged with drug offenses out of jail and on the road to recovery and productivity. This piece from the Washington Post focuses more broadly on addiction in northern New Mexico, but the highlights on the drug court and its judge are worth a look. (It’s part of a Post project on the importance of regional stories and what is or could be lost when local papers shut down, another important topic.)

As always, check law and practice in your story state. We may be writing fiction, but getting the facts right matters.

Drug Court: the graduates talk to the judge

I’ve written here and in Books, Crooks & Counselors about drug courts, citing the tremendous results in Yellowstone County (Billings), Montana. The District Court judge who led the county’s family drug court for 12 years, Judge Susan Watters, is awaiting Senate confirmation to the U.S. District Court. The Billings Gazette reports that this past week, the graduates gave the judge their own thank you ceremony. I think it’s quite moving, and that if you are writing about the court system, options like drug and mental health court, or addictions issues, you’ll find something useful in the story.

And take a look while you’re there at this article on Enhanced Treatment Court, formerly called Mental Health Court, a court that focuses special attention on those who have committed minor crimes but struggle with a variety of issues, including mental illness, to help them get back on track. It’s good work.

Character motivation: treatment courts

In Books, Crooks & Counselors, I wrote about drug courts, mental health courts, and other treatment courts designed to give offenders with identifiable problems–sometimes called “co-occurring conditions”–extra resources. The goal is to provide intensive management and supervision to help them solve the underlying problems, e.g., requiring regular check-ins, making sure they attend AA or NA meetings, obtain psychological counseling, and work or attend school–helping them become contributing members of society while reducing the risk of future criminal offenses.

A 2011 report from the Montana Supreme Court, Office of the Court Administrator, tracks their success. The results are encouraging. 

On average, in Montana, nearly 54% who enroll graduate. National studies show similar rates.

• “During the 30-month study period there were 123 documented reoffenses including 21 felonies and 102 misdemeanors for a reoffense rate of 15.47%. When broken out by type of offense, (i.e., misdemeanor vs. felony) the rates are as follows: 2.6% felony and 12.8% misdemeanor.”

• 162 participants who were out of the program for two years or more committed 19 offenses (2 felonies and 17 misdemeanors), for an 11.7% overall reoffense rate. The report says “This rate of reoffense compares very favorably to traditional criminal justice system reoffense rates for alcohol and other drug dependent offenders.”

• “Adult Drug Court graduates reported a 17.6% increase in employment from admission to graduation. Family Drug Court graduates report a 61.8% increase in employment from admission to graduation.” When parents work, kids do better economically.

• “Adult Drug Court participants reported a 21.4% increase in adults getting a high school education, GED or attending some technical school/college. For the 86 Juvenile Drug Court cases there was a 350% increase in the number of participants receiving a high school diploma/ GED or some college.”

• “Forty-four of the 115 graduates that did not have a driver’s license at admission received a license by graduation.” Most likely those licenses were lost because of DUIs. Reinstatement reflects sobriety.

Funding problems continue. At the same time as some counties are adding drug, family, and veterans court, others are cutting treatment courts.

The easy-to-read report opens with a letter from a graduate, and provides a useful analysis of a variety of approaches with statistical results.

Are your fictional characters candidates for a treatment court? Graduates or drop-outs referred back to prosecution? A family member helping, or standing in the way? Staff? A mental health counselor fighting to keep a treatment court operating?


Veterans’ Courts – plot and character prospects

One of the Q&A in Books, Crooks & Counselors is how drug courts work. In answer, I mentioned other intensive supervision courts–for veterans, the mentally ill, DUI offenders, families, and young fathers. These specialized courts also offer writers an opportunity to explore social issues through fiction–one of the things modern crime fiction does particularly well.

Nearly 100 courts nationwide focus on veterans who have committed crimes–often involving drugs or alcohol, and not serious felonies. A combination drug and mental health court, vets’ courts address the special needs of vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and other combat-related injuries, as well as substance abuse, anger, and challenges readjusting to civil society. By providing intensive supervision and access to services, the courts can help these defendants get their lives back on track–and reduce the risk that they’ll become repeat offenders, homeless, or otherwise unproductive.

The Missoulian recently reported on the first graduate of the first veterans’ court in Montana, who says he served five tours as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, and came back angry.

An earlier story describes the court’s purpose and structure. Participants sign a contract that includes a treatment plan. They agree to undergo drug testing, counseling, and daily phone check-ins for the first several weeks, and weekly in person check-ins with the judge. Depending on their needs, they may be ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. All need to be employed or searching for work, and job search assistance may be available. Mentors–all vets themselves–work with each participant.

According to reporter Gwen Florio, one participant says a big difference between veterans’ court and regular court systems is there’s not much complaining. “We’re grateful for the opportunity not to be in jail.”

Successful participation can result in a reduced sentence or deferred prosecution.

If a veterans’ court seems like a good addition to your story, get more information from the National Clearinghouse for Veterans Treatment Courts, a project of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, or check out the links in this Missoulian article.

(Photo of Lady Justice from the US Supreme Court website.)