Like many people his age, Judge M. Joseph Donald suffers from high blood pressure. He tries his best to exercise, eat healthy and keep up with his medication. Sometimes, he does better than others. His physician praises him when he sticks to his regimen and chastises him when he lapses.
Imagine if he found himself behind bars if he neglected to manage his health needs?
Donald typically makes that analogy when he encounters critics of the Drug Treatment Court over which he presides. Addictions hold tremendous power over those they afflict. It takes a strong will to overcome them and stay atop of them.
The new court is just a year old, with two graduates so far — nonviolent offenders who entered into deferred prosecution agreements on the conditions of a strict treatment program and seeking employment. There will be more in the coming months and years.
“They both had fairly lengthy criminal records. Still, it was clear to me that what they needed was another chance and the structure we provided,” says Donald. “When you look at their booking photos from nine months ago, and see them today, it’s been an amazing transformation. They’re clean; they have jobs; and they’ve re-connected with their families and friends — people who’d given up on them. I’m amazed at their courage.”
For those who have setbacks, he says, “We just do our best to get them back on track.”
Donald, a lifelong Milwaukeean who is entering his 14th year on the bench, has done every rotation except family court. By far, he says what he’s doing now is the most rewarding and challenging.
“It’s like being a parent. I scold, pry, cajole, motivate — whatever it takes to get people to follow through,” he says.
“I see myself in them sometimes. I grew up in the central city, too. I had mentors who pushed me in the right direction, but know how easy it can be to be led the other way.”
“Besides,” he continues, “from a fiscal standpoint, we just can’t keep locking people up. It’s time we got a little smarter and help those who can be helped. And we need to have an honest, hard discussion about drugs in our community. No one is born an addict; they become one. And it’s happening everywhere — not just in the poor parts of town.”