How Good Intentions Can Go Wrong


Therapeutic courts may have consequences not intended by their leaders and participants. Most of these courts—including the one I highlighted in my November posting, and the one I will discuss here—begin with noble motives. At the outset, their goal is to help people whose illnesses lead them into the criminal justice system, and to divert them by imposing treatment in lieu of punishment.

That said, good intentions can lead in many directions if unchecked by objective reviewers or evaluators.

Recently, Judge Amanda Williams resigned rather than face sanctions based on allegations regarding her behavior in a Drug Court in Georgia. A highly respected jurist, she was the Chief Judge for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Glynn County, Georgia. She also ran their Drug Court for over a decade.

Highlighted in a fascinating and disturbing episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Judge Williams was alleged to be running this court in a highly punitive and authoritarian manner, inconsistent with national Drug Court guidelines which suggest that punishment simply is ineffective in this setting.

Those of us trained in behavioral psychology, and those of us who are parents, certainly understand this: the most effective form of behavior modification is based on positive reinforcement. Punishment generally does not work, promoting resistance and sullenness rather than compliance and success.

Yet Judge Williams seems to have relied heavily on coercion and punishment.

I am unfamiliar with the daily operations of Judge Williams' court operation, and my opinions here are based only on publicly available records, including the allegations made by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the agency responsible for assuring Georgians that judges act properly and ethically.

It may well be that her behavior was generally appropriate, though her resignation in the face of these allegations suggests otherwise. And you shouldn't take my word for it. Read the allegations for yourself.

I also encourage you to listen to the NPR episode where you will hear other court officers—both prosecutorial and defense-oriented—concluding that her approach was more punitive than they would expect in a therapeutic court setting.

Of course, there may be more to this story, as there is to all stories.

As noted in the story on “This American Life,” Judge Williams was motivated, at least in part, by her husband's addiction and subsequent recovery. As such, she was a true believer in the importance of intervention and recovery as an ongoing process.

However, her approaches appear to have violated defendants' liberty and due process rights in a number of ways:

  • As chief judge, she was able to require the detention of defendants even on minor drug charges until their bail could be set on the next drug court day. As drug court had only one docket per week, this means that a defendant could be held without bail for up to 7 days before the case could be heard for bail. Defendants charged with similar non-drug charges would have their cases reviewed within 24 hours, and often would be released during that time.
  • High bails were set for defendants facing drug charges, which resulted in many defendants choosing drug court simply to “get out of jail.” Many defendants had little understanding of what they were choosing, suggesting that such choices were, at times, less than “knowing and voluntary.” While such coercive paradigms are common in our court system, the result is that many offenders remained under the jurisdiction of the Drug Court far longer than the typical sentence they would have received elsewhere in Georgia.
  • Harsh sanctions were imposed for even minor violations of the Drug Court agreement, and even after prolonged periods of compliance. At times these sanctions included indefinite detention and, in at least one case, the imposition of solitary confinement without access to visitors or even minimum medical care, leading to a serious suicide attempt.
  • As participants in Drug Court, defendants waived their rights to appeal any sanctions that Judge Williams placed on them. In fact, defendants signed away their rights to request removal of their case to another judge as a condition of participation in Drug Court.

I have no wish to pile on to Judge Williams, who I am sure was generally a reasonable, fair-minded person and judge. That does not excuse, however, the approach she came to impose in her Drug Court.

And this is my point:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Drug Courts, like Mental Health Courts, are a wonderful attempt to help those who, due to their illness, find their way into our criminal justice system.

But like all therapies, they have side effects that must be managed appropriately. In addition, these interventions must be provided only to the proper recipients, at the proper dose, and in the proper way else they do more harm than good.

While I appreciate the purpose of the non-adversarial approach used in both Drug Courts and in Mental Health Courts, the stated interests of the defendant, however ill-advised they may be, cannot and should not be ignored by defense counsel, a part of whose mission is to protect defendants from unfair treatment.

While treatment is good, the same treatment approach does not apply in all cases. In this court, at least, it appears that the true believers in a particular approach to treatment lost sight of the treatment recipient and his/her goals and desires.

This story sounds familiar to the old saying in medicine: “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”

Erik Roskes, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a forensic psychiatrist and currently the Director of Forensic Services at the Springfield Hospital Center in Maryland. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Roskes' employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He welcomes readers' comments. Dr. Roskes website is

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