ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — There is perhaps no more convincing advocate for the work of St. Johns County Adult Drug Court than Judge Wendy Berger.
Berger, who was the drug court judge from 2005 to 2012, is not known for being soft on criminals. She is now on the appellate court.
She is a firm believer in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. When she was first asked to be the drug court judge upon her appointment to the circuit court, Berger was wary of becoming part of something that was going to let criminals get a free pass.
“I was skeptical coming here initially,” she said. “But it did not take long for me to see the benefits of this program.
“I’m proud to have been part of the program.”
For a decade now, St. Johns County has run a drug court program that strives to catch non-violent offenders with a substance-abuse problem before they get to the point that long prison terms are the only legal option.
Those who haven’t been drug dealers and are ready to live their lives without illegal drugs or alcohol are given a chance in drug court to prove they can get clean on the outside.
Different kind of justice
After decades on the bench in Putnam County, Senior Judge A.W. Nichols knows how to deal with criminals.
Like any circuit court judge, he’s handed down his share of prison sentences to those who have earned them.
But he’s been a different kind of judge in St. Johns County on Wednesday mornings throughout the fall — and now into winter.
Nichols has been filling in at drug court while the county was a down a judge with the appointment of Berger to the 5th District Court of Appeal.
Unlike in criminal court, Nichols doesn’t listen to weeping family members plead for leniency, doesn’t hear victims talk about the damage done to them.
In drug court, the judge acts more like a concerned grandfather or perhaps a trusted minister.
“How’s your job going? Did you get that promotion yet?”
“How is your family life? That new baby keeping you up at night?”
In drug court, it’s a relationship.
Participants often have setbacks, but if they stay with the program, they can still make it to graduation.
With support, supervision, testing and guidance, drug court gives people a chance to get clean without incarceration. Participants must reach specific goals to advance through fours phases of the program and getting to graduation. During this process, they must pass drug tests, attend self-help meetings, participate in counseling sessions and do community service, among other requirements.
“I tell them: ‘This is going to be one of the hardest things to do in your life,’” Nichols said following a Dec. 19 drug court session.
“But the end results are going to be worth it.”
Keeping them out of the system
Every judge who’s worked in criminal court has defendants that he or she sees on a regular basis. And so many of those repeat offenders are committing drug offenses or are committing crimes in order to obtain drugs.
That’s why drug court was created: to get to the root of the problem.
“If the criminal behavior is based on drug use, if they no longer need the substance, (crimes won’t be committed),” said Ralph Cumberbatch, the county’s drug court coordinator. “If you change your thinking, your behavior will change.”
Cumberbatch was part of the team that started drug court here, along with — among others — former judge Robert Mathis.
Mathis was the first drug court judge in the county. As a former prosecutor, Mathis said he had real reservations at first. But once the program was established, Mathis saw the way it changed the lives of those who made it through the program.
“It was, without a doubt, the most rewarding thing I did as a judge,” he said.