The General Assembly’s political dogfight over the state’s budget is threatening to neuter Charlottesville’s drug court.
The Medicaid expansion stalemate in Richmond has left Charlottesville’s 16th Circuit Court without a designated judge to oversee the city’s drug court for the first time since it was created 16 years ago.
“The longer it goes on, the more we’re going to see people falling off the rails,” said Susan Morrow, who oversees Charlottesville’s drug court program. “For the people who started in February, they’re not getting a real drug court experience without the most important player: a sitting judge. The sooner it gets fixed, the better.”
The Charlottesville/Albemarle Adult Drug Treatment Court was created in 2007 as an alternative for drug addicts facing jail time. Launched by former Charlottesville Circuit Judge Jay Swett, drug court mirrors many similar rehabilitation programs throughout the country, using testing, employment standards, community service, and counseling as a way for drug users to avoid incarceration.
The local drug court’s most recent chief, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire, stepped down on January 27 after 16 years on the bench. As is the way of things in the Commonwealth, the General Assembly was tasked with appointing his replacement. But the ongoing budget debate in Richmond has dragged the legislature into a special session, further delaying all routine business until the state’s budget is resolved.
As a result, the drug court and the city’s circuit court as a whole have functioned with a merry-go-round of substitute judges all year, according to court clerk Llezelle Dugger.
In that time, the drug court has not been able to secure a judge to preside over its weekly Thursday sessions at least five times, or nearly half of the participants’ appearances, said Morrow. Those review sessions are vital to the success of drug court participants, she said, because they check on their compliance with employment standards, drug rehabilitation meetings, and other court mandates.
“We have had occasions where we haven’t had a drug court judge and we’ve had to make do with a roll call instead of a drug court session,” said Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman, who sits on the drug court advisory board. “You don’t want the quality and consistency of the program to change for the participants because these are people who are very vulnerable to relapse.”
When a drug court participant violates the terms of the program, that violation is supposed to be dealt with immediately. But without a replacement for Hogshire, if a judge is not available, the participant’s violation can go unpunished for days, according to Morrow.
“The faster the intervention, the better,” she said. “We’ve got situations where we can’t actually act to correct the behavior or impose a sanction with much swiftness because we don’t have a judge to do it.”
Without a designated judge to take his place, Charlottesville has also lost its biggest drug court advocate. During his tenure, Hogshire developed personal relationships with drug court participants—a key ingredient in the efficacy of the program, according to Morrow and others.
“The drug court program operates a lot like a family,” said Morrow. “And the dad of the family is the drug court judge. Participants spend a lot of time pleasing the judge. And when something goes well they really look forward to telling the judge what happened. And when something goes badly, they really worry that they disappointed the judge.”
Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos agreed. Hogshire developed a relationship with those who came before him, and visiting judges can’t do that, she said.
“It’s not because they’re not perfectly qualified judges,” said Szakos. “We just really need to have a judge who sits here and is invested in our current local justice scene. So yeah, it’s a problem.”
Morrow said drug court participants have yet to voice any concern of their own over a lack of a steady judge. However, one former drug court participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity echoed the concerns that a lack of a sitting judge could lead to a decline in the program’s success.
The Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association (CABA) has recommended to the General Assembly that David Franzen replace Hogshire. But Palma Pustilnik, the president of CABA, said she hasn’t heard anything from the state government since January.
Charlottesville Delegate and House Minority Leader David Toscano said the legislature doesn’t have much of a choice. Lawmakers have other judicial appointments to consider besides Charlottesville’s, and part of that process is deciding whether to fund new judgeships. That means it all comes back to the budget, and with Republicans and Democrats still unable to find a possibly non-existent middle ground on Medicaid, “it’s hard right now to see where the deal is,” he said.
Of the more than half-dozen rotating judges filling Hogshire’s vacancy, former Charlottesville Circuit Judge Swett and former Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross have dealt with drug courts before.
But they are both retired, filling the court’s docket as they can. The other judges come from as far away as Fairfax or Virginia Beach.
If the present looks bad, the future looks even bleaker for drug court. There are five upcoming sessions slated for May and June that currently have no judge scheduled, said Morrow. If that goes unresolved, the efficacy of the court program could truly buckle at the knees.
“We have no judges yet and we don’t know if we’re going to,” said Morrow. “The drug court would absolutely fall apart with no judge for that long of a period of a time.”
So Morrow has been meeting with other drug court coordinators and is planning to call on several other retired judges with drug court experience throughout the state to fill those judicial slots. The situation is dire enough that Hogshire himself is trying to get approval to return as a substitute drug court judge in the coming months, said Morrow.
To make matters murkier, there are other drug courts in Virginia with judges about to retire, further lessening the pool of qualified judges who could substitute in Charlottesville’s court.
Chapman said it’s incredibly difficult to gauge if any negative effect has occurred with the lack of judicial leadership in the drug court so far, but if the status quo continues, the worst is yet to come.
“We don’t want to see it,” said Chapman.