Judge Seth Norman

The original theory of incarceration for criminal offenses was  to punish and rehabilitate. Over the years it seems that the theory has become geared more toward punishment and less about rehabilitation. This is not to say that penal systems have abandoned rehabilitation because this is not true. The problem arises as the result of the ever growing number of people who are incarcerated.

For many years legislative bodies tried to combat crime by building more jail or prison cells and increasing the punishment for certain crimes. Much of this has come about because of the increased use of drugs by the people of this country. At the present time almost 60% of all individuals serving a sentence of confinement for a criminal offense have an addiction. For many years, many members of the judiciary believed that you could “lock’ um up till you dry’ um out”.

Before I was elected as a Criminal Court Judge in 1990, I had practiced law for 28 years. A good part of my practice had been defending individuals charged with a crime. When I started as a young lawyer drug cases were rare. However, over the years the number of clients I represented for drug related offenses steadily increased. Later, as a trial judge, I began to see the “revolving door” analogy increase. I would sentence an individual to prison for a drug related offense and before I knew it the same individual was back before me after having served his or her sentence only to be released and within a short time was back before me on a new drug related charge.

Sometime in the early nineties I read or heard of something in Miami, Florida called a “Drug Court”. At that time our criminal courts were swamped with drug cases. The thought crossed my mind that we might be able to get a new criminal court to handle drug cases and relieve our overcrowded dockets. I appeared before the appropriate state legislative committee and asked permission to investigate the possibility of a Drug Court. We were fortunate because we received a study grant and an implementation grant to help us start a drug court program. In late 1996 the Davidson County Drug Court began to operate. As luck would have it, we did not get another court, I got another docket.

Our operation was an out-patient program. Such programs are extremely valuable and serve a great purpose, but they do little to relieve the jail overcrowding problem because most people who are eligible for out-patient treatment would not be sentenced to incarceration. It was obvious that if we we are going to help the jail overcrowding problem we would have to divert individuals from jail to a residential facility. It was not the intent of the proposed program to offer treatment in lieu of punishment but rather to offer treatment in conjunction with punishment.

In order to receive the grants for a drug court, visits with other operating courts is required. During these visits the length of treatment was a continuing topic. The longer a person stayed in a treatment setting the more their chance of success improves. The Drug Court staff considered this fact and decided that some type of residential setting would be worth a try for long term hardcore drug users who were packing our jails. As luck would have it the staff became aware of buildings at an old mental hospital that were vacant. These buildings had been vacant for a considerable length of time and were not in the best of condition. We asked for, and were granted permission to use these facilities.

Well, now the drug court had a potential residential facility, but that was all we had. No beds, no sheets, no towels, no food, but most important of all no money!!! In Tennessee, and probably in many other states, money and property are often seized in drug related cases. Tennessee law allows some of these funds to be used for the treatment of addiction. By agreement with the District Attorney

General and the Chief of Police we entered into a contract which provided the drug court with some of these funds.

The Davidson County Residential Drug Court staggered into being. There were no guidelines for this type of operation. It was strictly on a trial and error basis. We would try something and it would not work, so we would back up and try something else. We kept experimenting until things worked. Most state and local governments have surplus property departments. We had to become very friendly with these people, as the result we were able to acquire the necessary furniture and other items.

While searching for additional funding we became aware that there were charitable organizations that could or would not give money to a governmental body. The Las Vegas drug court had solved this problem by creating a not for profit foundation to receive monies from such charities. The Nashville Drug Court Support Foundation was created to alleviate this problem. Judges cannot solicit funds in Tennessee but a not for profit foundation can.

What started with seven residential volunteers began to blossom. It soon became necessary to ask for more buildings. The original entrants were all male. It soon became obvious that a female component was necessary. Within a year we were using five buildings on the old mental hospital campus. Our population had grown and was approaching 100 residents. For some reason that we have never understood we asked the city of Nashville government to pass a resolution that allowed the drug court to use these buildings as long as the drug court was in operation. Within six months the city told us we would have to move because Dell Computer was moving to Nashville and they wanted this property. Because of the resolution granting us use of the property we politely refused to move. The city found three million dollars and built us a new 100 bed facility. We continue to operate out of that facility today. The five building complex is structured to house
40 female residents and 76 male residents. Population is usually controlled by available funding.

Admission to the residential treatment program is controlled by the Tennessee Drug Court Treatment Act of 2003. As is usual with most Drug Courts, violent offenders are excluded. When the Davidson County residential program started its treatment it was only for residents of that county (Davidson) and cocaine was the most prevalent drug of choice. When Tennessee began to realize that methamphetamine was a growing problem, the Governor asked us to add twenty beds to the facility and to start a pilot project for the treatment of meth addiction. Several years later the thirteenth Judicial District of Tennessee asked if we would be willing to oversee their Drug Court. The 13th Judicial District covers seven mostly rural counties in eastern middle Tennessee. Through this program they would be able to send individuals to Nashville to receive their residential treatment at the Davidson County Residential Treatment facility and then be returned to the 13th Drug Court for their aftercare. Finally in 2013 the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Tennessee Department of Corrections asked if we would oversee another 100 bed facility for males in Morgan County, Tennessee. The Morgan County facility is located in an old prison annex which is separate from the prison complex.

For almost 18 years the residential program has been in operation. During that time the prevalent drug of choice has gone from cocaine, to meth, to prescription pills. During all of this time marijuana, alcohol and other drugs continue to be abused but they are not as significant.

The residential treatment program generally consists of three parts. When a person is admitted to the program they are told emphatically that there is no definite period of treatment. Some people are able to go through the program faster than others, and some people are not entirely ready to embrace treatment. To begin, an individual will be assigned an addiction counselor, and they will be given written assignments as well as participating in group sessions. Lectures, guest speakers and study groups are part of their daily routine. Basically the first part of the program is like most other private residential treatment programs. However, there is one major difference. In this program everyone has a job. All meals are prepared by residents assigned to the kitchen. The entire facility is maintained by the residents; therefore, you might be assigned to do laundry, or yard maintenance or gardening. No one just sits around doing nothing. This serves two purposes. One, time passes faster when you are working and two, discipline is taught by structure. This phase of the program usually will last anywhere from nine months to a year.

The second and third parts of the program are different depending upon which facility you are in and where your home county is located. If you are from Nashville and are a resident at the Davidson County facility, you will continue to reside at that facility, but will be allowed to go out and find a job during the day. When they become employed they are required to pay a portion of their salary to the facility as rent. In the third part of the program they reside outside of the facility but they must check in with their counselor at certain times, be drug tested randomly and attend Drug Court every Tuesday evening. If they are not from Davidson County they will be returned to their home county for aftercare treatment. In their home county their aftercare will be similar to that of a Davidson County resident.

All of the applicants must have pled guilty to some offense before they can be admitted to any of the above described programs. They are told, before being admitted, that if they violate the terms and conditions of their treatment that their sentence will be put into effect and they will be transferred to prison to serve their sentence. Over the years we find that about 35% of those admitted to the program will be returned to serve their sentence, usually because they are just not ready to accept treatment or because the program is too rigid and they had rather serve their sentence. As of now the programs have had over two thousand admissions. Currently there are close to 200 in various phases of their treatment. Close to 1,000 have completed one of the programs and have graduated. We are constantly asked about our recidivism rate. This is a hard question to answer because there is no definite description of a recidivist. Is it a person who graduates and is then arrested for any offense? Is it a person who graduates and is arrested for a drug offense? Is it a person who graduates and is convicted of a drug offense? Also, because we have been in operation for over seventeen years, it is difficult to keep up with all graduates. Some have left the State of Tennessee, some have gone on to become successful citizens and no longer wish to be affiliated with their past and others just disappear. As best as we can tell, about 20 to 25% of our graduates can be classified as recidivist. We try to keep up with this by checking arrest records and running the names through criminal statistics computer programs several times a year.

Currently it costs $67.00 per day per individual to house and feed a person in the Tennessee Department of Corrections. The average cost of housing, feeding and treating an individual in our programs is $47.00 per day. If you average having 125 people in the programs each year you save the State of Tennessee $20.00 x 125 x 365 + $912,500.00 per year. At the rate of $67.00 per year, it costs the State of Tennessee $24,455.00 to house a prisoner. The average length of time that one of the people admitted to the residential programs would actually spend in incarceration if they went to prison is four years. That same person would graduate from the residential in two years. Therefore each successful graduate from a residential program saves the State of Tennessee an additional $48,000.00 of incarceration cost.

I am a Criminal Court Judge, I carry a regular criminal court docket the same as the other five Criminal Court Judges of Davidson County. Being the Judge for the Davidson County Drug Court, the 13th Judicial District Drug Court and the Morgan County Residential Recovery Court are in addition to my elected position. It is 160 miles from Nashville to Morgan County. The 13th Judicial District happens to be almost in the middle of that distance. I hold drug court in Nashville every Tuesday at 5:15 p m. Two Thursdays a month one of my court officers and I leave Nashville at 6:30 am to drive to Morgan County. I hold Drug Court in Morgan County at noon Nashville time. Then I start back to Nashville and stop at Cookeville, in the 13th Judicial District, and hold Drug Court at 5:00 p m. I usually get back to Nashville about 7:30.

People often ask why I do this. To me, it is a privilege. One, I am a taxpayer in this state and do not like to see my taxes wasted. Two, it is a great pleasure to see people change their lives and become useful citizens. Nothing feels better than to have a stranger walk up to you somewhere and tell you that you saved their child’s life.

In answer to the question asked by this article, I will say that for an addict, yes jail without treatment fails. However, we feel that our statistics that have been compiled over seventeen years prove that jail in conjunction with treatment greatly reduces this failure figure.

Since being elected as a Criminal Court Judge at the local level in 1990, Judge Norman has dedicated countless hours toward improving the system’s response to the link between substance abuse disorders and crime. In addition to the responsibilities of a full-time Criminal Court Judge, he is the founder and Presiding Judge of the Davidson County Drug Court (DC4), and the founder and former Chairman of the Nashville Drug Court Support Foundation. Judge Norman and DC4 have been highlighted in various publications as well as the 2004 President’s National Drug Control Strategy, Addiction Professional Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Tennessean, and other periodicals. Judge Norman also serves as Founder and Presiding Judge of the Morgan County Residential Recovery Court. He holds dockets at that facility two Thursdays a month.