Inner-City Judge Offers Ideas on Drugs and Youth

IN the current national debate over crime and drug issues, criminal judges from inner city courts seldom speak out. Until last month, Massachusetts District Judge James Dolan presided over an inner-city court here in Dorchester for 20 years. Thousands of cases involving drugs, murder, gangs, domestic violence, and broken homes have passed through his court.

``Despite the nation's strenuous efforts to control the drug trade through the criminal justice system,'' the outspoken judge said in an interview, ``my experience is that it has failed. The drug problem is now a murder problem. Most of the deaths of young minority men and boys in urban centers are directly related to the drug business, which is regulated by force and violence.''

Judge Dolan is equally concerned that the courts, by default, are assuming a role in society that they should not have. ``Society now views the courts as the most important value-shaping institution we have,'' he says. ``Legal and illegal, lawful and unlawful will never be a substitute for right or wrong.''

Decriminalization of drugs? ``The experience of those in the courts is that for every person you send to jail for a drug offense,'' he says, ``and even when you increase the sentence, there are several others to take his place. As long as there is a drug market, drug dealers assume the risks and sell the drugs. Severe sentences haven't reduced the availability of drugs; if the shootings continue, we have to address the problem as a health issue. And if that fails, then I agree with [United States Surgeon General] Joycelyn Elders that at least we have to begin to talk about decriminalization.''

To help control the drug problem, Dolan suggests a ``drug diversion court.'' He describes it as a ``court and drug treatment facility under the same roof, or in close cooperation,'' so the judge, after referring people to the treatment program, can review individual progress on a weekly basis. Similar courts are successfully operating in Miami and six other cities.

``This is not a separate court with judges and staff,'' says Dolan,``but a separate session of court. It is the treatment that is expensive, plus providing job skills, and the judge is there to offer close encouragement or to growl at defendants when appropriate.''

Dolan and a judicial colleague have applied for funding for the court from the state.

``Our hope is that within the next year we will have the court established,'' he says. ``We think this is better than simply throwing people in jail. As judges we get caught up in the sentencing, and what happens afterward is probably more important because the integrity of the system is at stake, whether or not we do what we say.''

Despite the effort to initiate such a court, Dolan remains skeptical about rehabilitation. ``By the time we [the courts] get many of these young people, it is too late,'' he says. ``Many are kids who were born to kids who were born to kids, usually in single-parent families without any moral or religious instruction so necessary to restrain and guide us. In many of them there is no `habilitate' to rehabilitate. We are in deep trouble if the courts are the only restraining force in society.''

As violent crimes are committed by younger and younger offenders, Dolan favors penalizing many of them as adults. ``Beyond getting emotional and all warm and fuzzy about kids and their backgrounds,'' he says, ``I would be the first to admit that `there but for the grace of God go I', but it is our job to protect society. If a kid has committed a very serious crime and poses a danger, he should be punished severely by being confined for a very long time.''

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