Judge Tim Dwyer and the Shelby County Drug Court provide an alternative to jail for drug offenders: A path to long-term recovery.
When Tim Dwyer was elected to General Sessions Division 8 in 1984 at the age of 30, he was the youngest judge in the state of Tennessee at the time. He also was continuing a family legacy; he had two uncles who were judges, one of whom served Division 8 until he passed away.
Dwyer won the election to replace his uncle. He hadn’t been on the bench long before he realized putting people who were addicted to drugs in jail wasn’t the answer. So he started experimenting with placing drug offenders on probation and in rehab facilities.
Those early experiments eventually led to the Shelby County Drug Court, started in 1997 by Dwyer, which continues today as a treatment alternative to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.
Those offenders who choose to go through the program face a strict, year-long program of treatment, counseling, monitoring and education. Graduation often means criminal charges are expunged, dismissed or the sentence is set aside.
“Generally when people come they don’t want to get off drugs but they don’t want to go to jail,” Dwyer said. “When they’re in the program their mindset changes and many of them buy into the program and we have good results. …. Some do think it’s too hard. They’d rather go to jail.”
Those offenders who choose to participate are placed in an outpatient program that requires them to report back to the court on a regular basis. Other aspects of the program include mandatory random drug testing, attendance at treatment sessions and 12-step meetings, assessments for chemical dependency and participation in other programs such as family/individual counseling, mental health counseling, GED/job readiness and anger management classes.
The early days proved difficult, in part because of a lack of dedicated funding. Dwyer said he “scraped around to find places” to put people. Harbor House treatment facility was helpful, especially in those early days.
The attorney general’s office took notice of what Dwyer was doing, and approached him with a new idea as drug courts were coming into existence in the early '90s.
“Most of my friends said don’t do it,” Dwyer said. “You’re crazy. You already have a full docket. I found out that conventional wisdom was trumped by spiritual wisdom.”
Dwyer continued his normal court with his usual cases that spanned from DUI to preliminary hearings for murder. He sat aside about 30 spots to try out the drug court program.
Dwyer and others attended a training seminar in California in 1996. A federal grant followed, providing the seed money to start the Shelby County Drug Court in 1997.
A push came three years later to make Dwyer’s Division 8 a full-time drug court, which meant it would handle all the felony drug cases.
Today, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, Memphis Police and Shelby County government fund the program. State funding also helps, along with the Shelby County Drug Court Foundation.
The foundation helps for various things that the court can’t provide for through normal funding sources, said Angela Parkerson, Drug Court administrator. That includes transitional housing, treatment and GED reimbursement.
Cases are eligible for Drug Court after the prosecutor reviews it to better understand the reason the person is there. If it’s because of selling drugs, the person goes through the general legal path. But if it’s because of addiction, that person can follow the drug court path and a treatment program.
The prosecutor who is assigned to Drug Court serves as a gatekeeper, going through cases that are brought by a defense attorney. Someone from the Drug Court team meets with the person to conduct an interview and explain what the program entails. An assessment follows, and the ultimate decision made if a person will enter the program.
Not every case in Drug Court is drugs. Some are drug-induced, such as stealing money or prostitution to buy drugs.
“We have an open-door policy,” Dwyer said. “If it’s drug related we take it unless it’s a crime of violence.”
The open-door policy means any of the Divisions 7 through 14 can send cases to Drug Court. The criminal court divisions also can send someone who is on probation. Municipal courts in the Memphis area also send cases, including Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown.
Not everyone wants to go the path of Drug Court; in fact, it’s their choice. Dwyer said he believes Drug Court works for those individuals who decide to stick it out because it builds in accountability.
“In the old days, if I sentence someone I’d never see them again unless they’re re-arrested,” he said. “Now I see them once a week.”
There are about 240 people the court supervises, although it’s been as many as 300 at a time before. There are nearly 2,000 graduates of Drug Court.
The court’s success rate isn’t perfect. Dwyer said graduates are convicted of another drug-related crime five years later about 25 percent of the time. But that’s a much better rate than for those who don’t go through the program.
Recovery is a lifelong process, and the Drug Court plays just one role. But Dwyer goes beyond what might be considered the typical judicial relationship.
“I make it a point to know everyone,” he said. “It’s important to know something about them to aid in their recovery. Say someone appears in court and they test positive on their drug screen. We don’t kick them out.
Recovery is a lifelong process. We may sentence them to a day in jail or increase meetings. It depends on the particular person. I think that aids us a lot.”
Dwyer has been asked many times over the past 19 years if he gets burned out with the many cases he sees in Drug Court. Those monthly graduations where Dwyer and the court’s staff get to see 10 or so people reach the finish line make the low points worth it.
“We do have disappointments,” he said. “People we put faith in and they flunk out of the program. But it never fails whenever I lose someone a day or two later a graduate sticks their head in the door and lets me know how well they’re doing and thank me."
"A lot of people wish they had a job to rescue people," he added. "We get to do that every day and see them 18 months later and graduate and how much different they are. That’s inspiring.”
This article is made possible through a partnership with the R. Brad Martin Family Foundation.