Dealing With Addiction From The Judge's Bench As News & Notes takes a month-long look at addiction, we get insight from Judge Lynn Toler of TV's Divorce Court. She talks about her days as a municipal court judge in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she saw many cases related to drug addiction.
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Dealing With Addiction From The Judge's Bench

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Dealing With Addiction From The Judge's Bench

Dealing With Addiction From The Judge's Bench

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. Here's another listener favorite from 2008.

(Soundbite of NPR's News & Notes, August 13, 2008)

CHIDEYA: This month, we're looking at addiction in America. Today, we're going to talk about how illegal drugs cross paths with the criminal justice system. Our regular contributor, Judge Lynn Toler, is now the star of TV's "Divorce Court," but in the early 90s she was a municipal court judge in Cleveland Heights, Ohio and she saw her share of drug related cases. Hi, judge.

Judge LYNN TOLER (Former Municipal Court Judge, Cleveland, Ohio; Host, "Divorce Court"): Hi. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I am great. So, you know, when we talk about drug addiction, particularly in black America, we have to talk about crack cocaine. And when that form of cocaine hit low-income neighborhoods in the 80s, it had all sorts of devastating effects. How did judges in the justice system respond?

Judge TOLER: I don't think they knew how to respond because I don't think they understood necessarily the mechanism that was at work there. When you're dealing with crack cocaine it has a different - it was more powerful. It had a different neurological aspect and things that it did to the brain, so the severity of the problem and the quickness and severity of the addiction was not understood. And consequently, the response was not necessarily appropriate or addressing the problem that was there.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that - the response?

Judge TOLER: Well, the response was, in the mid-80s, a little bit hysterical. They were talking about the tidal wave of crack use. They were talking about crisis and epidemic. And what they did was, they responded with deep, serious, mandatory minimum sentencing for simple possession.

And you could have a small amount of crack cocaine and go to prison for five years, as if simply being draconian was a response to the severity of the addictive potential that crack had. And what you did was you would put in a 22-year-old crack addict, and just five years later, get out a 27-year-old crack addict. Those neural pathways had not changed, nor had they addressed the new nature of the addiction that was sweeping across urban society.

CHIDEYA: You and I have talked a little bit about family law in different contexts, but I'm thinking about comedian Bernie Mac, who passed away recently, but he did a famous routine about his crack-addicted sister. He had to take care of her children. So, when it comes to things like family court, what kind of ripple effects did it have there?

Judge TOLER: I think it has - one thing - I mean, I do have to say, you know, Bernie Mac is - used to always say, you've got one in your family. And I have seen addiction from both sides - from my side of the bench and the other side of the bench. And I've seen it through the criminal justice system and come out the other end in a situation that worked in one, in a situation where it didn't work.

So, when you're talking about, you know, it having scope beyond - it's just not the other guy and to the extent it's just not the other guy, I think, helps us look at the problem in a more - less reactionary manner. And family courts have cropped up because they realized, or the judicial system has realized, that a response to addiction, domestic violence and a number of other problems has to deal with a number of layers of society and a number of aspects of behavior that is systemic within the family.

CHIDEYA: Now, you saw your share of drug possession charges, but I'm guessing there's also cases that involve crimes that were motivated by addiction. I mean, someone said to me once in New York - you know how sardonic New Yorkers are - I'm glad heroine is back because crack addicts stole my TV. So, tell us about, you know, kind of the side crimes.

Judge TOLER: Yeah, yeah, you know, I think that was one of the reasons why crack got such a rapid and severe response - was because crack, not unlike meth these days, inspires behavior which is more violent than you would if you're smoking marijuana.

In my court, I used to prefer marijuana smokers to drinkers because drinkers get up. They get up, they get angry, they have a whole lot of bravado where marijuana smokers - I very rarely had that as the underlying cause for a domestic violence case. But drinking was another source and it's the same dichotomy there - that crack and meth, they tend to lend more to violent crime or to crimes of possession - not possession, but of theft that would upset society, because that creeps out beyond the borders of the attics and it implicates them.

CHIDEYA: Give me one thing that you would like to see the justice system do differently regarding addiction.

Judge TOLER: I think that - I would like to see in a penal system where they had - a separate penal system for those people who have been convicted of drug crimes, non-violent drug crimes, where they address the addictive nature of whatever they're on and have them on probation and ease them out of the penal system with very severe probation conditions so you can address the addiction and the behavior and environment that invite continuing use, even though an addict is trying to change.

CHIDEYA: Well, Judge, always good to talk to you. Thank you.

Judge TOLER: Always. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Judge Lynn Toler is the star of "Divorce Court." She's also the author of "My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius" and she joined us from radio station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona.

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