ATTLEBORO — The late comedian Lenny Bruce once said that in the halls of justice, justice is in the halls.
On Thursday, judicial lessons were taught in an Attleboro High School classroom where almost two dozen students listened to a local judge in teacher Tobey Reed’s criminal justice class.
After explaining the importance of having independent judges free of outside influences, Attleboro District Court Judge Edmund Mathers talked about drug court where some defendants qualify for substance abuse treatment rather than jail.
Mathers, a judge for five years who has served on the drug court in Taunton District Court for almost three, said the innovative program started in Florida and spread nationwide because of the success in reducing recidivism and crime.
“It’s pretty amazing what people can do if the circumstances are right,” Mathers told the students.
Defendants chosen to participate in the drug court typically have been to jail before and are vetted by court clinicians and other professionals, Mathers sad.
The defendants must undergo random drug testing and obey other strict conditions while monitored by a probation officer before they can graduate or they face up to two years in jail, the judge said.
“It’s an intensive supervision, something like they’ve never seen before,” Mathers said.
Defendants must earn a general education diploma if they have not graduated from high school and maintain their sobriety. Some have gone on to be productive members of society earning up to $80,000 as electricians or plumbers, Mathers said.
“I want them to succeed. I want them to do well. But I have to sanction them when they don’t,” he said.
The judge said drug courts have been credited with reducing recidivism and crime by up to 50 percent and represent a less expensive alternative to jail, where it costs about $80,000 a year to house an inmate.
Currently, there are 25 drug courts in the state. There is not one in Attleboro, but Mathers said he expects the state to have more in the next five to 10 years.
Mathers said many of the defendants who appear before him only commit crimes to feed their drug addiction and would not be in court if they were leading sober lives. Mathers also said many defendants have mental health problems and need treatment.
The judge said he believes in being fair and weighing mitigating factors in a defendant’s history and the circumstances of the crime before fashioning a sentence. As a district court judge, he can only sentence a person to 2 1/2 to three years in jail, but defendants in superior court face longer sentences.
Mathers said there are hardened criminals who deserve to be behind bars, such as drug traffickers who are motivated by profiting from the sale of narcotics.
“If El Chapo was in my courtroom I’d sentenced him to 30 or 40 years. He’s a drug kingpin,” Mathers said, referring to 61-year-old Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera.
El Chapo was convicted last month in federal court of 10 charges, including leading a criminal enterprise and importing and selling large amounts of narcotics into the United States. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
Mathers appeared at the high school as part of National Judicial Outreach Month. This month over 150 active and retired judges in the state will volunteer to speak to students and civic groups across the state to educate them about the judicial branch and the American legal system.