Judge Jennifer Smith Takes Over As Presiding Judge Of Davidson County Drug Court

July 25, 2019

For more than 20 years, the Davidson County Drug Court Residential Treatment Program has been a statewide and national leader in the effort to reduce recidivism, lower costs, and improve the lives of non-violent offenders with chemical dependencies.

Founded in 1997 by 20th Judicial District Criminal Court Judge Seth Norman, the Davidson County Drug Court, also known as DC4, was one of the first residential drug court programs in the country and is currently one of only two such programs in the state.  After Judge Norman’s retirement in 2018, DC4 welcomed his successor, Judge Jennifer Smith, as presiding judge.

Judge Smith was appointed by former Governor Bill Haslam to fill Judge Norman’s seat on the 20th Judicial District Criminal Court in 2018. Since then, she has been hard at work learning DC4’s operations and meeting the many employees and residents who make it run.

“It is an honor to serve as presiding judge of DC4 and to carry on Judge Norman’s legacy and vision,” Judge Smith said. “Treatment courts restore lives from the devastation of addiction, save valuable resources, and are good for the community. The DC4 residential program in particular is a model of excellence for recovery courts nationwide, and I look forward to working with Program Director Dr. Janet Hobson and the dedicated DC4 staff to continue that tradition.”

Judge Smith oversaw her first DC4 docket on July 2. The weekly dockets bring Judge Smith to the DC4 facility in Nashville, where she first meets with staff to receive updates on all of the program residents. She then addresses each resident on that week’s docket individually, offering words of encouragement but also pointing out when a resident’s behavior could use improvement.

Here is a typical exchange, from a recent docket.

“Reports are that you’re making great, great progress, so keep up the good work,” Judge Smith said to a program participant. “How is your grandmother doing? Are you keeping in touch with her?”

The idea is not only to check in with residents, but to establish a rapport that can prove conducive to successful rehabilitation.

“An important part of the drug court concept is that the judge is hands on and knowledgeable about each individual participant,” Judge Smith said. “So when the judge gives encouragement or imposes a sanction it’s a meaningful thing to the resident because the resident knows that the judge understands what he or she is going through and is making sanctions or is giving encouragement that is individualized.”

There are currently 76 residents at DC4, but the demand is far greater. Judge Smith said there is a nine-month waiting list to get into the program. Typically, offenders are referred to DC4 by either a public defender, a defense attorney, the Community Corrections Program, or after completing a treatment program in jail. They are then assessed by the Drug Court Assessment Team and are given individual treatment plans based on that assessment.

The program itself consists of three phases followed by an aftercare component. The first two phases are entirely residential. Participants take part in therapy and support groups designed to help them overcome their addictions and thrive once they return to society. In the third phase, residents still live at DC4 but are allowed to work a job away from the facility. It generally takes about 18 months for residents to complete these three phases of treatment.

When a participant completes the third phase, he or she transitions to aftercare and may live away from the facility in a sober-living or halfway house. Aftercare participants are still required to undergo drug screenings, attend regular dockets at DC4, and comply with other therapeutic requirements, all of which takes a minimum of six months for completion.  After successful completion of aftercare requirements, participants graduate from the DC4 program and are transferred to state probation to complete their sentences.

While Judge Smith has not been associated with DC4 long enough to see someone go through the whole process from beginning to end, she said she has seen and heard clear evidence of the program’s benefits.

“I can certainly see a level of positivity and gratitude in the individuals who are in advanced stages of the program or who are leaving the residential program and going into the aftercare program,” she said. “When participants move to that aftercare phase they are given an opportunity to speak to the group, and they consistently express gratitude and joy at being at that point. They look good. They look healthy. When you see some of the before-and-after photographs of some of the individuals who have gone through the program, it’s night and day.”

Those observations are backed up by statistics. The program boasts a recidivism rate of just 25 percent, and a retention rate of around 65 percent.

The program is also remarkably successful from a budgetary standpoint. The program receives $35 per day from the Tennessee Department of Correction to cover the costs of a resident in DC4.

“The daily cost of an individual in the prison system is much higher,” Judge Smith said. “And DC4 is getting positive results for people instead of warehousing them for a period and then putting them back into the community to face the same problems and issues all over again.”

Judge Smith thinks the program’s success is due to several factors. One of those is the DC4 staff.

“The staff is incredibly dedicated,” she said. “Many of them have been here for many years, some since the inception of the program. They’re dedicated to what they do. It makes it easy for a judge to come in when the facility staff is doing a great job. I have a lot of confidence in the counselors and in the leadership at DC4.”

Other factors, though, get to the very heart of the drug court concept, which seeks to address the causes and not just punish the effects of addiction.

“People come into the criminal justice system for a lot of different reasons—for sociological reasons, for economic reasons, and very often for reasons of addiction or mental illness,” Judge Smith said. “Recovery courts reflect a growing recognition that criminal behavior is not always best addressed by a jail cell.  It is important to get to the underlying reasons that people are coming into the system to begin with. If you don’t address the root of the problem, then you often see the revolving door of recidivism with the same individuals and even families coming back to court over and over.”

Part of doing this effectively is by reframing the way many people, including many addicts, view chemical dependencies. Rather than viewing addiction as a character flaw, DC4 residents are taught to regard it “for what it is, which is an illness,” Judge Smith said. “It’s not a crime to be an addict. And it’s also not a sign of weakness to be an addict. It is a medical condition that needs to be treated.”

This, of course, does not mean that DC4 is a place without consequences. If a person fails to complete the program, they go to jail. What it does mean, though, is that DC4 operates with a realistic, evidence-based understanding of addiction. This understanding acknowledges that the path to recovery is often not a straight one, but one marked by twists and turns.

“Relapse is common for addicts in recovery,” Judge Smith said. “You hope it doesn’t happen, but at the same time must be prepared to address it as part of the recovery process when it does.”