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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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