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“This American Life” Helps Take Down Overly Punitive Georgia Drug Court Judge

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By HVnews on December 21, 2011

Judge Amanda F. Williams, the chief judge of the Superior Court of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Georgia, had a reputation for being an aggressive, combative judge.

“Judge Williams was a person you did not cross,” J. Robert Morgan, a lawyer in Brunswick who argued cases before her, told the New York Times. “She ruled by fear and intimidation. I’ve been in front of 50 judges in 34 years and I’ve never seen anything like her.”

Now nobody will get to experience anything like her — she announced her retirement from the bench on Monday after 21 years of presiding over court cases.

By all accounts, Judge Williams is an awful version of Judge Judy on steroids, an activist judge who had no problem belittling lawyers and the accused who stepped before her.

The Times has more:

In November and December, the judicial commission brought formal complaints against Judge Williams, after receiving multiple complaints from lawyers. The commission accused her of giving special treatment to the relatives of her friends, allowing her personal lawyer to represent clients before her and behaving in a “tyrannical” manner.

According to the commission’s 14-count list of charges against her, she sentenced drug-court defendants to “indefinite” detention “until further order of the court.” In one case, she ordered that a defendant be denied any communication.

“Nobody! Total restriction!” she ordered, according to the complaint. “No mail, no phone calls, no visitors.” The complaint says the defendant, who had a history of mental illness, spent 73 days in solitary confinement and tried to kill herself while in jail.

If Williams’ name sounds familiar, it’s because the popular Ira Glass-hosted radio show “This American Life” devoted an full hour-long episode to her exploits back in March of this year after catching wind of her harsh punitive sentences handed out in drug court. Like most things TAL, they present a gripping story that can’t be turned off. Take some time and listen to this incredible story:

If you don’t have time, here’s a key excerpt about a young drug court defendant:

That’s because Lindsey happened to be at a very unusual drug court. Most drug courts you’re in and out in a year or two. The average is a year and three months. Occasionally – very, very rarely – someone’s stuck in drug court for three years. But the drug court run by Judge Amanda Williams operates so differently from others that Lindsey will spend 5 1⁄2 years in drug court, including 14 months behind bars, and then another five years after that – six months behind bars – she’s in the middle of that now – and 4 1⁄2 years probation. By the time she’s done, it’ll be 10 1⁄2 years of her life.

Now that seemed like a lot to me – Remember, the original crime here is forged two checks totaling a hundred dollars. First offense.

But I thought ‘hey, maybe that’s how they do it in Georgia.’ So I ran it by two lawyers who handle drug cases around the state.

Harvey: That’s insane. That’s complete insanity.

This would be Bruce Harvey, a defense attorney who’s handled felony drug cases for 33 years all over Georgia. Here’s Parag Shah, who was a public defender in Atlanta, author of a guidebook to Georgia criminal law called The Code.

Shah: wow. Wow. That is…My opinion is that would be egregious in probably 90% of the counties in Georgia.

Ira: That seems like a lot?

Shah: Extremely.

Both attorneys said that typically, two forged checks for $100, first offense, at most would get you probation … and you’d probably get some sort of alternative program – like a 16-week drug class or life skills class – without ever going to trial.

Of course, these were defense attorneys. Maybe prosecutors would see it differently. So I ran the facts of Lindsey’s case by the district attorney for Forsyth County, Penny Penn – who handles the drug court cases there.

Penn: It certainly sounds rather Kafkaesque, doesn’t it? I don’t that it’s a very good use of resources. And that’s separate of the part of fundamental fairness.

Ira: What’s the fairness issue?

Penn: That it has gone on for so long. And the point of the drug court program is to get people help.

Maybe now people can get the help, not the punishment, they need. Maybe drug court will serve people well. At a time of intense scrutiny by Republicans, score another win for public radio.

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