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TV drug court raises ethical concerns

Jenny Montgomery
October 12, 2011
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MontgomeryNewsAnalysisOn Sept. 26, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals released a position statement about the new television show, “Last Shot with Judge Gunn.” The group is opposed to the new syndicated show on the FOX network for several reasons, but among its chief complaints are that the judge on the show has no real authority and the defendants have already been sentenced to probation, but are not active participants in drug court. The association also claims that the show is misleading and potentially damaging to people who are struggling to overcome addiction.

Mary Ann Gunn is the latest in a long line of TV “judges” who dish out down-home legal advice. But unlike some of her predecessors, Gunn isn’t dealing with cases involving bad dogs, bickering roommates or damaged property. Gunn – who stepped down from the Arkansas judiciary this summer – features real-life drug and alcohol offenders on her show.

Each 30-minute episode is purported to show drug court proceedings. But the offenders on the show are on probation, not active participants in the drug court program. If they were in the program, they’d likely be on the path to recovery already, as part of a strict rehabilitative structure that is inherent to how the state’s drug courts operate. Most drug court treatment programs in Arkansas last an average of 18 months.

For Gunn’s show, bailiffs and other legal professionals earn extra income by reprising their real-life roles in a rented courtroom on Saturday mornings. The Arkansas Dept. of Community Corrections, whose officers oversee people on parole and probation, originally said its employees could participate in the show. Arkansas DCC spokeswoman Ronda Sharp told Indiana Lawyer that after receiving many phone calls from the public, “… it became apparent that the situation was terribly confusing to the public and would be confusing for offenders.” For that reason, DCC leadership decided to prohibit employees from being on the show.

“Offenders might face a situation of seeing their officer and not knowing whether the officer was an officer at that point or acting as an officer. The possibility for confusion was too real and could potentially cause problems for offenders and officers alike,” Sharp said.

Gunn, a former Washington/Madison County drug court judge, sought an opinion from the Arkansas Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee in 2010 about whether she could broadcast drug court proceedings nationally. In issuing its opinion, the ethics committee wrote that the state Supreme Court should consider reviewing Administrative Order No. 6 to determine whether drug court proceedings should be broadcast, as Gunn had been doing for years via public access station Jones TV.

The Supreme Court modified Administrative Order 6 to specify that drug court proceedings should not be broadcast. And two men who successfully completed the drug court program filed a lawsuit on Aug. 11 against the state and Jones TV. In William Garrison and Joshua K. Thompson v. State of Arkansas and Jones TV, No. CV11-2388-4, the men claim that one condition of their participation in drug court was that the charges would be dropped, and records concerning the drug offenses would be sealed. They claim producers for Gunn’s show are now using actual footage from her former court to promote her program, and that even when drug court participants objected to being filmed, filming continued. Footage from Gunn’s real-life courtroom broadcasts is still available on YouTube. Garrison and Thompson are seeking to have all recordings from Gunn’s former court sealed. On Sept. 22, Arkansas Business reported that Jones TV would permanently go off the air as of Sept. 30 because of “challenging economic times.”

Marion Superior Judge Jose Salinas presides over drug court in Indianapolis. He said that while each state may follow different models for its drug court programs, he thinks that any broadcast from drug court would be – and should be – boring. In his court, any contentious issues are settled in private, when he meets with the prosecutor, defender and caseworkers to discuss how all drug court participants are proceeding through the program. And in the courtroom, Salinas calls participants to the bench one at a time, speaking to them in hushed tones to explain what was decided in his chambers. When the defense or prosecution approaches the bench, they do the same. No one yells at each other or attempts to embarrass program participants by chastising them.

In its 2010 opinion, the Arkansas Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee wrote: “One purpose of drug court is to avoid a conviction and the notoriety that comes with the conviction; to turn around a person and to get this issue behind him or her. In this modern media culture once the taping is done and it’s released into the public domain, it is there forever and can come up from time to time during the defendant’s entire life.”

By ignoring that opinion, Gunn has obviously ruled in favor of fame over protecting people from harm. After all of her years on the bench, she should know that people who enter the legal system as a result of drug and alcohol abuse are often struggling with serious emotional issues. While the show pays these people to appear – and for their eventual treatment – one has to wonder what the long-term effects of their uncomfortable celebrity status will be.•

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  4. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  5. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

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