Chief Justice Speech - December 17, 2002

Drug Court Graduation
San Francisco Superior Court
Remarks by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
December 17, 2002

Good afternoon. I am very pleased to participate in this very important event. The individuals whose graduation we are here to celebrate have overcome many difficulties and obstacles to stand here, and — like your friends, family members — we in the judicial system are all very proud of what you have achieved.

The concept of a drug court was first introduced in the early 1990's. Today, there are 158 drug courts functioning in 50 of California's 58 counties. San Francisco's program, which began only 7 years ago, will graduate some 400 individuals this year.

Drug courts are different. They require courts and judges to step outside the confines of their traditional roles and work in close partnership with other participants in the justice system — and with defendants themselves. In fact, everyone involved — judges, lawyers, defendants, and support services — must rethink their roles and act differently. What has been remarkable has been the way so many individuals have met these challenges and exceeded all expectations.

Drug courts concentrate on a focused goal: reducing repeat offenses by providing individually-tailored services and responses to assist offenders who have drug abuse problems. That sounds very abstract - but success is easy to measure: Consider the effect on the lives of individuals who appear before drug courts and on the lives of their families. In other words, look at the graduates we honor today, and those who are here to applaud them.

Since becoming Chief Justice of California in 1996, I have had the opportunity to visit several drug courts, and the privilege of attending some very memorable and moving graduation ceremonies. I have met with quite a few drug court graduates, like those in this room. Their success stories are truly inspiring.

Graduates of drug courts have returned to school, earned degrees, found stable housing, gotten off the unemployment and welfare rolls, found new jobs, and once again become productive members of their communities.

Many graduates have been reunited with children who had been removed from the care of their parents because of parental addiction or drug-related crimes. Many of these graduates are passing their wisdom on to other persons, by helping in drug rehabilitation and drug court programs.

It is no secret to any of us in this room that drug and alcohol abuse plays an enormous role in a majority of the criminal, family, and juvenile cases that come before our courts. Substance abuse affects more than the abuser — it affects his or her family, friends, and community. And that in part is what drug court programs help to address — the variety of effects that a drug abuser's actions can have, including the neglect or abuse of a child, domestic violence, criminal activity engaged in to support an addiction, and the impoverishment of a family.

Drug court programs afford courts the opportunity to look beyond the criminal act that brings an individual into contact with the court system and to consider the larger context of his or her life — as well as the future of that individual in the community — rather than having to resort to unproductive incarceration.

Drug courts have been successful in large part because they are built upon a collaborative model. Historically, courts viewed their role as distinct from that of other agencies within the justice system. The court served as decision-maker. A defendant's life beyond his or her offense was relevant primarily for sentencing purposes — and once an offender was sentenced, the courts expected to have no further contact with the individual unless he or she re-offended.

The drug court model takes a very different view of the role of the courts. For the model to succeed, it requires courts to join with district attorneys, public defenders, and court administrators, as well as treatment specialists, community services, and the probation department, in working with the defendant.

The promise of this new approach has been recognized not only in California, but across our nation. In 2000, the Conference of Chief Justices — an organization of which I am President-elect and which includes the Chief Justices of every state in the union — adopted a resolution supporting the development of these courts.

In California, we increasingly have been developing a broader definition and potential application of what has come to be called "collaborative justice." This term includes a number of innovative court programs that are aimed at improving access to services for individuals, while providing better protection for the public and enabling more members of society to be productive. San Francisco has initiated specialized programs that include not only drug courts, but also domestic violence and unified family courts, and plans for a mental health court.

Whenever I encounter individuals involved in the operation of a drug court project or another collaborative court setting, I always am struck by their enthusiasm and their devotion — what, in fact, often amounts to zeal on their part. The drug court movement is one that requires vision from all participants. It asks of you something that the court system does not frequently call upon us to do — to believe in the possibility of real change and in the positive power of education, support, and personal commitment, and to recognize that a transformation in one part of an individual's life can have a profound effect on every part.

There are many challenges that lie ahead for the courts in general and for our nation as a whole. A historic budget crisis, uncertainty about personal security, balancing individual rights and the need for safety — all these provide part of the background of our daily lives. You who graduate today will have many day-to-day challenges to face - but you now have new tools and resources to help you do so successfully.

In a time of uncertainty and fear, it is truly a pleasure to salute the San Francisco court and its partners in the justice community and the community-at-large for their dedicated efforts to make a true difference in the lives of San Franciscans. In the judicial system, our primary goal is ensuring access and fairness to all who need the services of the courts. Drug courts are one very important way to give depth and breadth to that commitment, and to help ensure that courts are here to serve every member of our community.

Let me close by thanking the other individuals who have made this event possible - the graduates who have made a commitment to turning their lives around and already have made a difference. Congratulations to each of you on your achievements to date. And my best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season, and a new year that will bring continued success and satisfaction.

Thank you again for asking me to join you here today.

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