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Ira responds to Judge Williams' press release

Apr 15, 2011

Ira writes:

In the last two days, Judge Amanda Williams has decided to respond at length, publicly, to my story about her drug court. A law professor representing Judge Amanda Williams issued a press release yesterday saying that my story about her was "riddled with falsehoods" and "libel masquerading as journalism." Today he publicly released the 14-page letter he sent me.

For all the minutiae presented in these two documents, Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel don't dispute and barely address at all the main two points of my story or the evidence I provide to back up those points. Those two main points:

1) Judge Williams' drug court uses punitive sanctions for relapses and other broken rules which are harsher than any other drug court I—or the national experts interviewed for the show, who were familiar with hundreds of drug courts across the country—could find. These jail sanctions—3 days for a first relapse when a defendant doesn't admit he's still using, 7 days for a second relapse, 28 days for a third relapse, and "indefinite detention" after that—not only go against national guidelines set by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, researchers (and the head of the NADCP) told me that studies show they would not work with addicts. They run counter to the core philosophy of drug court.

2) Judge Williams' court uses a variety of means that other drug courts don't to encourage defendants to sign up for drug court.

Although Judge Williams and Mr. Oedel claim that there's "a litany of factual errors" in the radio broadcast, the only errors they found were in something I posted on our website. I corrected these once I was informed of the errors. There is no "litany of errors."

My attorneys are responding to Mr. Oedel's letter with one of their own.

For now, I'll confine my comments to his press release.

Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams state that "Glass was looking for someone his listeners could hate, and when the facts didn't fit, he just made them up to make the protagonist hateful." This isn't true. I made up no facts. I stumbled onto this story, and followed the facts where they led. I have no interest in making anyone seem hateful and in fact my story points out Judge Williams' idealism, her good intentions and her great success with many drug court participants. In the story, I quote one who says she saved his life. I would have liked very much to include more from the Judge's perspective, and I wrote her many letters saying this, but once she was re-elected this fall, she declined both my interview requests and my repeated requests to record in her courtroom.

Regular listeners to our radio show know that it's overwhelmingly comprised of stories where there is no one to hate. If anything, that's a hallmark of the show. Yes, when it came to the Wall Street meltdown (and my comments about our coverage, referenced by Mr. Oedel), we did at one point go looking for stories of bankers who did things that were illegal or unethical, as many journalists did. That has nothing to do with this.

In his press release, Mr. Oedel makes a number of statements that I believe are untrue.

He says my story:

"used the recollections of three people who washed out of that treatment program to claim that Judge Williams coerced them into drug court in the first place, and imposed overly punitive (but previously agreed-upon) sentences when they washed out of drug court for driving under the influence and other relapses."

Well, no. In Lindsey Dills' case I go to pains to explain that she was not forced into the drug court program but insisted on it herself. In Charlie McCullough's case I explain that he gladly chose drug court. In Brandi Byrd's case, yes, I point out all the incentives Judge Williams uses that no other drug court seems to use. In their letter and press release, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams say nothing to challenge the accuracy of the facts I included about those incentives.

As for the sentences these three got "when they washed out of drug court"—my story does not discuss whether those are punitive or not. That is not a subject I take up in my report.

Instead, I focus entirely on the sanctions they and other defendants get while in the drug court program. Here, I point out that the sanctions are much higher than those recommended as effective by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and much higher than any drug court I could find. Nothing in Mr. Oedel's press release or letter contests these conclusions or the evidence I present for them.

Mr. Oedel says:

"After Oedel challenged Glass on that claim of no independent judicial review, Glass retracted his allegation on April 11, 2011, admitting on Glass’s website, 'That’s not true.'"

There was no retraction. Mr. Oedell sent his letter. In it he said that my radio story had claimed that there was no appeals process for decisions made in Judge Williams' court. But he was misinterpreting the story. The story did not say that. As I pointed out in my clarification, there's a quote in the story where an attorney, Jim Jenkins, says that there's no procedure to appeal the sanctions the judge levies against you in drug court. If she gives you 28 days for a drug relapse, there's no procedure to compel her to review that decision. A public defender who worked in her drug court confirmed this. I stand by that as factual. I did not retract anything.

But I posted a clarification because two other listeners had asked me about the same thing, was Jenkins saying there was no appeal process at all? He wasn't, and it seemed worth clearing up.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"This is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation, with a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent at three years after concluding treatment."

This "re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent," Mr. Oedel's letter makes clear, comes from a 29-page report issued by Judge Williams' drug court. As best as I can tell, in quoting this number, Mr. Oedel and Judge Williams are misreading the Judge's own report. The charts on pages 14 and 21 of the report do indeed show that graduates had a recidivism re-arrest rate of 5.5 percent for felony non-drug offenses (or perhaps this is for all felony offenses, the report isn't very clear), but when you add in the other offenses measured by the study—non-drug misdemeanors, drug misdemeanors and felony drug offenses—the recidivism re-arrest rate cited by the charts is 30.1 percent, not as impressive when compared to the national averages that Mr. Oedel quotes.

This report does not appear to be the work of an independent researcher, but generated by the drug court staff itself. The copy provided to me had not been peer reviewed or published. Using it as the one piece of evidence to conclude that "this is one of the most effective drug courts in the nation" seems questionable.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"After being challenged by Oedel, Glass also conceded that he erred in reporting that bail in one of his example cases was revoked for the addict’s failure to pay for her drug treatment."

Yes that's true. After Kim Spead sat in jail for eleven months, from September 24, 2003 to August 5, 2004, Judge Williams did finally offer her bail at $15,000 cash. The word "cash" is handwritten and double underlined on the court document, and initialed by Judge Williams.

"Glass admitted that the individual’s bail was revoked for failure to report to court, not for failure to pay a portion of costs for treatment."

Here Mr. Oedel is correct. I misunderstood the sentencing document, which did not state what Kim Spead was being sentenced for. I appreciate the correction and was glad to update it. This was not a fact that was part of our broadcast, but a case I wrote about on our website.

Mr. Oedel writes:

"John Dills, the father of Lindsey Dills, the primary source relied upon by Glass for his story, flatly rejected Glass’s claim that the drug court program hurt his daughter."

Great. And if he'd been willing to talk to me in a taped interview, maybe that's something I could have quoted on the radio. But he turned me down. As to whether Judge Williams' drug court saved his daughter's life or anyone else's, it seems possible it could have saved those lives using sanctions that are more in line with national standards. In Lindsey's case, when one of the sanctions that no other drug court uses—Judge Williams' "indeterminate sentence"—was employed, Lindsey unsuccessfully attempted suicide. More traditional sanctions against Ms. Dills might have avoided that.

As to this:

“Glass is an admitted character assassin who’s not above using his national radio platform for partisan political purposes in the national debate about drug courts, meanwhile trashing a local official whose major offense was to succeed at helping people to get off of drugs, keep off drugs, and survive.”

Let me state here unequivocally: I do not admit to being a character assassin. Also: I am not a character assassin. Further: I have no idea what "partisan political purposes" would be in the national debate over drug courts since, as I point out in my story, both major parties support drug courts. They seem like a fine idea to me as well. My story had nothing to say about the effectiveness of drug courts nationally, except to praise it. My story was about how this particular drug court, run by Judge Williams, is not run like other drug courts. Nothing in Judge Williams' and Mr. Oedel's press release and letter contradicts that.

If Judge Williams wanted to comment on what I found in my research, I wished she had answered my repeated letters and phone calls asking her to do that in my story. If she prefers to respond through press releases then I guess I'll settle for that.

So now I call on her and Mr. Oedel to answer these questions for me in their next press release: When she sentenced Charlie McCullough for his very first drug relapse to 17 days in detention and added a year and a half to his time in the drug court program, this was a much harsher sentence than recommended for a first relapse by the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. The NADCP recommends no jail time at all for a first relapse. The NADCP philosophy—articulated in my story by its president—is that more punitive sanctions don't work with addicts. Research shows that more punitive sanctions can backfire and in fact be counter-productive with addicts. Which brings me to my questions: What was the therapeutic goal of this unusually harsh sanction? Why does she believe a sanction so out of line with national standards will be effective? Since it caused Charlie McCullough to give up on the program, does she believe it backfired? Finally: now that she's been informed that the jail sanctions she imposes are far outside the national guidelines, and that research studies show that such measures may be ineffective, will she be eliminating these punitive measures which add an additional burden to taxpayers?

Ira: "Teachers - Teach me!"

Apr 14, 2011

Ira writes:

I've agreed to teach my nephew's high school class how to make a "podcast" which in this case is code for making a little radio story in the style of our show. I know many teachers have done this with high school and junior high and even I've heard of elementary school kids in one class doing it.

I could use advice. Specifically: what topics seemed to work the best to energize the kids and to get nice stories? Should we go for personal stories? Stuff going on with their friends or families? Or turn them into reporters, interviewing interesting people around the neighborhood, doing oral history, stuff like that? What's seemed to work best?

Post any advice over on our Facebook page, or email: radio@thislife.org.

And if your class posted their audio stories on the web, maybe put up the links up on Facebook too (if they're okay with it)... so all of us can listen!

Thanks.

Mike Birbiglia's new one-man show

Apr 14, 2011

Birbiglia has a new one-man show called My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Many of the stories he tells in this one have been on the radio show, including that amazing story from our cinema event Return to the Scene of the Crime about marriage and a car crash ... but lots of new stuff besides. It's playing at the Barrow Street Theater in NYC. Tickets.

A clarification and a correction

Apr 12, 2011

Ira writes:

In the weeks since our show "Very Tough Love" about Judge Amanda Williams, a few things have come to my attention that I'd like to clarify:

1. Appeals

A few people have asked about a claim made by attorney Jim Jenkins in the story. He says that if someone is unhappy with some sanction levied by Judge Williams in drug court "there is no provision at all for any kind of appeal. And that’s one of the other real problems with the procedures of this particular drug court. If Judge Williams sentences you to 30 days or an indeterminate sentence, there is nothing that can be done. Period. You can’t appeal. There’s nobody to go to."

To clarify what he's saying: he's saying there's no procedure to contest any particular sanction. You can't compel Judge Williams or another judge to review your 30 day sentence for relapsing, or your indeterminate sentence. A public defender who worked in the drug court confirmed this. As far as I can tell, that's completely accurate.

Some listeners believed Jenkins meant something bigger: that there was no literally no legal recourse for a defendant in that situation. That's not true. There aren't great options, but there are options. A defendant who's unhappy with one of Judge Williams' sanctions can ask to be terminated from drug court. If they do that, they'll serve the time for the crime that got them into drug court in the first place.

And there's something called a habeas petition - where a defendant can attempt to withdraw his original guilty plea (which was a prerequisite to enter drug court) and be retried on the original charge. In a 2004 case called State v Stinson, the Georgia Supreme Court (affirming a decision by Judge Williams) declared that a drug court defendant can't withdraw his original guilty plea and be retried, if there's no mistake or irregularity in the original plea. So you can get a new trial only in very specialized circumstances. Something had to be wrong with your original plea. For instance, Charlie McCullough, who was in our radio story, eventually was released on a habeas petition. As his lawyer explained to me, this was possible because Charlie's original guilty plea was for the crime of attempting to purchase ecstasy (this is what he was charged with when he got into court) but in fact he'd tried to purchase LSD, not ecstasy.

You can also file a habeas on a Constitutional defect. The most common is ineffective assistance of counsel. Charlie relied on that in his habeas petition as well.

Other longshot appeals? If Judge Williams terminates you, you can ask a court of appeals to consider the case for possible appeal. If she terminated you improperly or if there was a clear error in law, they should let you appeal.

As for appeal rights that are waived on entering drug court: Judge Williams has drug court participants sign a waiver saying that they will not recuse her from their case "irrespective of defendant's success or failure" in the program. The waiver means she is the judge on termination hearings. As I stated in our broadcast, this goes against the standards and recommendations of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which recommend that a judge allow a defendant to recuse him or her from termination hearings.

2. Kim Spead

On our website and in the transcript of the radio story I stated that Kim Spead was kicked out of drug court for not paying her drug court fees, and then served 12 months for her original crime. Reviewing the court documents, I believe this is not correct. Although she did serve 12 months, it was not because she was kicked out of drug court. I believe she was not kicked out.

So what did she serve 12 months for?

It appears to be for the crime stated in the original bench warrant that put her in jail: for violating "the terms and conditions of the Drug Court sentence and the Drug Court Contract as follows: failure to appear for court on May 6, 2003." Kim hadn't paid her fees and was summoned to court about it on that day.

In addition, I originally stated on our website that Kim agreed to pay extra drug court fees AFTER she graduated drug court, but it was before.

We've posted a corrected version on the site.

iPad app!

Apr 5, 2011

We're very excited to unveil our brand new This American Life iPad app. It has all the features of our iPhone and Android apps, plus some exciting new stuff. It costs five bucks.

You can stream our entire 430+ episode archive on demand, listen to the live show, and get a bunch of audio and video extras. The coolest new feature—which you can't even do on our website—is single button play for each individual story within an episode. No more shuttling through audio to get to the part you want. Also pretty exciting: you can download THREE episodes at a time for offline listening.

Other new things include:

* "My Dashboard" section tracks your favorites, bookmarks, and shows you've heard

* Full episode descriptions

* Extras like our how-to-make-radio comic book, behind the scenes photos and producer journals from our TV show, essays by Ira Glass, strange maps and more.

* Live Twitter feed

* Optimized audio playback and scrubbing

* More generally, the app just has a super intuitive interface where you can easily browse the archive, flip through episodes, view shows by your favorite contributors, and discover stories you haven't heard before. It's getting a nice response from people who have downloaded. The app was built by our friends over at PRX.

Some screen shots:

Home screen


Episode detail


All Shows, landscape view


David Rakoff's contributor page


Dashboard that stores your favorites, shows you've heard, and shows downloaded for offline listening


Sample extra: our 'how to make radio' comic book

Here's the app on iTunes.

Ira hosts a “movie night” in Baltimore

Apr 4, 2011
Ira writes:

"I grew up in Baltimore and am a big fan of Civic Works, which was started by a high school friend, Dana Stein. It began as a program to give job skills to young people and has grown to the point where they even operate a middle school/high school inside the Baltimore City school system.

"We tried to think of a fun event we could do as a fundraiser for Civic Works and came up with what is basically a movie night of stories from our This American Life TV show. I've done versions of this event three times now, most recently this weekend in DC, and each time it's amazing to see the stories on a big screen. Our cinematographer shot them like a movie, and they're kind of gorgeous up there.

"I know most of our radio fans have never seen the TV show, so if you're in the area I hope you'll come out. We'll talk a little about Civic Works that night too: if you don't know about them, I think you'll be as impressed as I am. It's a good cause. If you want to really help them out, we're doing a reception before the show too, which will not be as good as sitting down with each and every one of you for a crab cake/shrimp salad club sandwich at Miss Shirley's, but hopefully will come close.

Tuesday night, May 3rd, 7:30
College of Notre Dame, 4701 N. Charles Street in Baltimore

Tickets and more info: here.

Thanks to WYPR for partnering on all this too!"

Monday: Current TV airs our final Television episode

Apr 1, 2011

On Monday April 4th at 10/9c, Current TV will air "No Respect," the seventh and final episode of our second season of television. It's is all about stand-up comedy, and features radio favorites Jonathan Goldstein and Mike Birbiglia. A clip:

Here's where to turn your digital dial:

DIRECTV: 358
Comcast: 107 (125 Dallas and Seattle)
Time Warner: 103 NY and 142 LA
Dish Network: 196
AT&T U-Verse: 189
Verizon FiOS: 192

"The Talent Show" - featuring This American Life contributors - March 30

Mar 28, 2011

TAL contributors Dave Hill and Shaina Feinberg are performing in The Talent Show on Wednesday, March 30, at Littlefield in Brooklyn. The theme of the show is "Your Mom" -- comedians, writers and musicians performing with, or about, their own mothers. Co-hosted by TAL contributor Elna Baker.

$5. Doors open at 7, show starts at 8. TICKETS.

Tonight on This American Life TV: "John Smith"

Mar 25, 2011

On Monday March 28th at 10/9c, Current TV will air "John Smith," the sixth episode of our second season of television. It's as good as anything we've ever put on the radio. If you watch only one episode, this is the one to check out. It follows seven people, all named John Smith, from a baby to a man in a nursing home - telling the story of a life cycle through several individual lives. It's our only hour-long episode, was a marathon of filming and editing, and ended up winning an Emmy for our editor Joe Beshenkovsky. Here's a clip:

If you have digital cable, you likely have Current TV:

DIRECTV: 358
Comcast: 107 (125 Dallas and Seattle)
Time Warner: 103 NY and 142 LA
Dish Network: 196
AT&T U-Verse: 189
Verizon FiOS: 192

Ira Glass and others discuss storytelling

Mar 16, 2011

Update 3/18: You can watch a video of the discussion here.

Tonight at 7PM EST Ira Glass joins several other journalists for an event organized by ProPublica, titled "Long-Form Storytelling in a Short Attention Span World."

Also featuring:

David Remnick, Editor, The New Yorker
Raney Aronson-Rath, Series Senior Producer, Frontline
Stephen Engelberg, Managing Editor, ProPublica
And moderated by Alison Stewart, Co-Anchor, Need To Know