Judge Tim Dwyer is an approachable man in his early sixties who speaks with an identifiable Memphis accent. A native of Frayser, Judge Dwyer has served as a judge in Shelby County since the mid-eighties, but is best known for his work with the Shelby County Drug Court, which he founded in 1997. The Drug Court was one of the first criminal courts in the country to embrace the rehabilitation, rather than punishment, of drug offenders. Over the course of more than three decades on the bench, Judge Dwyer has seen huge changes in the national and local conversation about drug use. We spoke about his work in Memphis and key issues that face the court today.
Memphis magazine: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Memphis’ drug court?
Judge Dwyer: We are going on our nineteenth year. We started in 1997. In the year 2000 we became a full-time drug court. It started out as a pilot project. I just did my regular docket and then I took about 50 cases that were drug cases — cases where we thought that people had a drug problem — and we worked with them. And we saw that it really was working, so then we made a move to expand it — to make my division a full-time drug court — which means that we can handle a lot more people. We’re the largest drug court in the state of Tennessee, currently. We have almost 275 people that are participating in our program.
You’ve said the drug court was founded in 1997. In terms of the “war on drugs,” which began in 1980, there has been a big cultural change in terms of how things were thought about between 1980 and 1997, and even 1997 to the present day. Can you talk about the national conversation on how addiction is treated and prosecuted?
Well, I think that we are way ahead of the curve. Because we’ve seen what they’re seeing now — that incarceration is not really the answer. So we go back to when we began to place the emphasis on treatment. When I first started, in 1997, there were very few drug courts in the whole country. Now there are thousands of them, because they are so successful.
You can take people, even people who are not sympathetic to someone who has a drug problem, and they still buy into the drug court program because it saves the taxpayer a lot of money, because we are taking people out of jail who cost $50 or $60 or $70 a day with no treatment, and we put them into an outpatient program for about $15 a day. So it is a big tax saver. That’s part of it. Of course, our goal is to help people get their life back. That is our mission.
How many cases would you see in a week, typically?
Per week, in our court, it is about 175 cases. The way drug court differs from other courts is that, in the old days, if I sentenced someone, I didn’t see them again until they were re-arrested. In drug court, they come back every week to see us, to make sure that they are going to their classes, to their Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, submitting to drug screens and testing negative. We have immediate accountability on that.
We work with local programs for our treatment centers. We have two residential components [Serenity on Poplar and the Cocaine and Alcohol Awareness Program on Knight-Arnold] where the offenders actually go out there and live while they are getting their treatment, and then we also have the outpatient component. The majority of them are in the outpatient program.
What is your success rate?
About 60 percent of the program participants graduate. Of the graduates, about 25 percent have been re-arrested and convicted of a crime, post-graduation. We track it out for five years post-graduation. And so from tracking them out five years, our recidivism rate is about 25 percent, where it is normally about 70 percent to 80 percent if someone is sentenced to jail, depending on which statistics you look at.
Have you heard criticisms about your court’s rehab-based approach to drug offenses?
Well, we really haven’t run into too many criticisms. Even the county commission — Democrats and Republicans — they feel like we’ve got a proven track record because we’ve been around for so long. When they first came out they said, “Oh, you’re being soft on crime, you’re coddling to the criminal.” But it is tough. Some people just say, “I want out, I want to do my time,” because they have to call three times a day to see if they are going to be drug tested. Because they have to go to AA and NA meetings they have to go to their groups, and that is pretty tough. And it should be tough. Because they have a chance to get a felony charge dismissed and cleared off their record.
How did you come to do this work?
I’m proud of the fact that my family is one of the longest-running families in Shelby County politics. There has been a Dwyer in office since the 1950s. And that had to do with the fact that I had two uncles who were judges, and they inspired me. My uncle Buddy was the judge in Criminal Division 8. He was elected in 1982 and he passed away unexpectedly in January of 1984, and the County Commission appointed someone to fill out his term until the next election. I ran against that person and was fortunate enough to win, and so I have been here since 1984.
What have you seen in terms of the changes in the landscape of drug use and criminality since 1984?
We’ve seen a lot of different trends, such as when cocaine was so prevalent. And now heroin is becoming so prevalent. Heroin use affects about 35 percent of our clients. Every year we have seen an increase in heroin use. Big time. I’ve seen a lot, and I learned early that putting people in jail was just a revolving door. So that is when I started experimenting with alternative sentencing and then that evolved into the Drug Court as we have it now