On a recent morning at D.C. Superior Court, Judge Melvin R. Wright steps down from his bench and begins moving about in an animated manner. The courtroom's 72 seats are filled, and even more people are standing against the back wall, watching.
For the past 30 minutes, Wright has been hosting a courtroom full of drug offenders that is part pep rally, part sermon. This is the day that dozens of people will graduate from the D.C. drug court program, and Courtroom 202 is one of the few places inside the misery-laden courthouse where the mood is upbeat and celebratory. The judge takes the criminal court jacket of graduate Lonnie Williford Sr. and holds it above his head.
"What do you want me to do with this, Mr. Williford?" Wright asks. "Hmm?"
Those in the audience are practically on their feet, chanting, "Trash can! Trash can!" Then, Wright, still in his black robe, brings a wastebasket around and slam-dunks Williford's criminal file. "It's gone," he says to Williford. "Congratulations."
It's a climactic scene that has played out once a month for the two years that Wright has been the drug court's presiding judge. But the ceremony is bittersweet, because Wright fears that the drug court's future is in peril.
An initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot asks D.C. voters if they'd like to adopt a new way of dealing with people convicted of narcotics offenses. If passed, Initiative 62 would allow certain nonviolent drug offenders to opt for treatment instead of jail.
Faced with those options, Wright said, drug offenders likely will bypass the nine-year-old drug court program, wanting to avoid the threat of jail that would be hanging over their heads, perhaps leading to the drug court's demise.
Proponents of the initiative, including some who are taking part in national campaigns to promote treatment, said they have widespread support from the community, noting that they gathered more than 40,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Similar measures in California and Arizona have been a success, they said.
"It's simple in that it makes sense. It's better than the status quo," said Opio L. Sokoni, campaign coordinator for Initiative 62. "Whatever solutions are happening now in D.C. aren't working. We have 60,000 people in D.C. that need treatment, but only 10,000 are getting it. . . . We're talking about keeping people out of jail."
Similar to the drug court, the initiative would allow offenders to enter treatment programs. And under the initiative, just as in the drug court, those who successfully complete treatment would have the charges against them dropped.
But the initiative differs sharply from the drug court in how it handles those who falter. The drug court is built upon the premise of rewarding good behavior and punishing missteps -- such as repeatedly skipping treatment sessions or relapsing -- with swift sanctions, including jail stays. Those who graduate from the program, including Williford, credit the approach with putting them on the path of recovery.
"Today is the beginning of my life," Williford said after leaving Wright's courtroom. Thanks to the drug court, the 37-year-old said, this is the first time he's committed himself to being clean since he was 11, when he began using marijuana, PCP and cocaine.
The initiative would give participants much more freedom to remain in treatment even after relapsing or getting into trouble, and they could be kicked out only as a last resort, such as if they commit crimes or represent a danger to others. In those cases, they could wind up facing jail.
The D.C. Department of Health, and not the court, would have the primary responsibility for supervising offenders in treatment if the initiative becomes law.
U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. contended that the initiative "risks a lower rate of recovery and a higher rate of recidivism -- at a greater cost to the District."
Other advocates of the current system said that the judge's repeated prodding, and the prospect of jail, is a critical and proven component of the drug court.
First-time violators spend two days in the jury box of drug court, watching court proceedings. Subsequent drug court violations lead to three days in D.C. jail. There's no limit to how many times participants can violate the terms of the program, but Judge Wright said he has the discretion to kick them out and lock them up as he sees fit.
"The whole point is to hold them responsible," Wright said. "The initiative doesn't have anything about sanctions at all. The judge's role in this initiative is very limited. Whereas now, the judge's role is very active."
Rufus G. King III, chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, echoed that assessment, saying: "Even with the best of intentions, it's very hard for people to just quit drugs and never have a relapse. Once they're in, you have to work with immediate and not-very-severe sanctions."
Sokoni countered that since drug addiction is a disease, sanctions are not the appropriate answer. One tenet of the initiative is that "relapse is understood to be a part of the process of recovery and not an occasion for punishment," Sokoni said.
Susan W. Shaffer, director of the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, said that up to 90 percent of drug offenders who enter the drug court program eventually face at least one sanction. About half get jail time at some point along the way, she said.
From 1994 to 2000, 2,171 people were admitted to the drug court program and 38 percent graduated, Shaffer said. Of the 105 people who graduated last year, eight were rearrested in the District on drug charges, she said.
Unlike the drug court, the treatment offered under Initiative 62 would not be available to offenders who possess Schedule I drugs, which include marijuana, heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Under the initiative, only people who possess Schedule II drugs, such as morphine, PCP, cocaine, methadone and methamphetamine, would be admitted.
Rob Fleming, 54, an activist and recovering alcoholic, called the initiative a "wolf in sheep's clothing," asserting that even the label on the initiative that appears on the ballot -- "Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders" -- is misleading.
"In effect," he said, "this is a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card."