[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of September is the Honorable Jessica Brewbaker. Judge Brewbaker was first elected to serve in the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas in 2015. Since 2017, Judge Brewbaker has served as the overseer for Cumberland County’s newly formed Opioid Intervention Court. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog]
The room was full. I found myself standing in the corner, shoulder to shoulder with a student intern. Judge Brewbaker sat in the center of the room, her family over her shoulder in frames on a bookshelf. She sat before an oaken desk in front of her just beside a neat bundle of papers and a ready pen. She laughs and smiles as she speaks to the professionals seated and standing around the intimate office space.
“Good news!” She announces as the meeting begins. They begin talking over progress and plans for individuals. Jokes, laughs, and smiles take the place of the typical brooding. The mood carries from meeting to the Courtroom.
A lit chandelier illuminates the room as sunlight pours in from the morning sun. A small clock done up in a country primitive design hangs on the wall just behind the pews filled with people present for the Opioid Intervention Court. Across the room, a white wingback leather chair sits behind a desk on a two-tiered dais. The words “Where Law Ends, Tyranny Begins”, embossed in gold letters, rest on the white-painted wood panel wall just behind the judge’s seat.
A resounding knock reverberates off the walls. “All rise for the Honorable Judge Brewbaker.” The judge walks in as the room stands. She takes her seat. She smiles, “Sit down, be comfortable.” Gone from the room is the typical somber air of a proceeding, but in its place is the same feeling from meeting in her chambers: warmth and trust.
The procession begins, each person approaching the judge with a casual gait. “I’ve been to every meeting,” one said. “I’m looking forward to vivitrol now, actually,” The judge responds to each person with a smile and warm comment of her own. The proceeding goes for just shy of an hour before the judge dismisses the group to return to their lives.
The Opioid Intervention Court (OIC) took time and effort to get assembled. Cumberland County’s community was unsure, and the judges were nervous about the work an every-day court presented. Judge Brewbaker, however, was excited for the prospect from the start, “I’m the person now that goes out to get the community on board…that was my role from the beginning.” The judge had described herself as a “cheerleader” for the court model, brought in from a court in Buffalo, New York. It fit, both in and out of the courtroom.
For over a year, the court has taken individuals and put them through a rigorous every-day program of treatment and rehabilitation for the exclusive purpose of saving lives. No person who has completed the program died and only 1 of the 115 people to enter the program has died in the past year. The court manages more than simply saving lives.
The court has been effective at reducing recidivism. Beyond crime reduction, it has also done much to change the lives of the people in the program. “It’s a lot of work,” The judge remarked, “Two-thirds of our people get jobs. That’s shocking, they’re not required, they have a lot going on. But they do it. It’s a lot of work, but it is so worth it.”
Back in her chambers, Judge Brewbaker settled back into her desk chair. “So, that was court. What did you think?” She asked. I told her that it was a deeply human, casual, but serious and inspiring the experience.
“That’s part of what these courts do. Focus on the humanity of the problem.”
The Opioid Intervention Court was an unusual concept to the Cumberland County community: a pre-trial intervention program designed to help people survive. To the Judge, the concept was something familiar. She had worked with another judicial program known as TOMS Court, named for Judge Brewbaker’s father who tragically lost his life in the battle for mental health. TOMS or Together Optimizing Mental Health Solutions Court was designed to optimize outcomes for people whose crimes were committed as a result of mental illness. “Interaction-wise, it’s a lot like what you saw.” She remarked on it, along with some of the overlap, “Two of my guys from Toms Court I saw in OIC and sometimes it’s vice versa…It’s an interesting overlap. It really helps to see how often the two coincide. It becomes important to determine which is the primary concern for the individual.”
Judge Brewbaker always had a proclivity to help others, even before becoming a judge. From her first internship, she worked with people in difficult situations as an intern for the Cumberland County Public Defender’s Office. “It really fit my personality; you felt like you’re helping people,” She paused, “when you’re a public defender or when you do any criminal defense, people say, How can you defend people who do all these things? and generally what I always say is that you’re not defending bad people, but people who made a bad choice or bad decisions.” The public defender’s office offer was an unexpected but welcome starting place for her legal career.
Following years in Criminal Justice, Judge Brewbaker decided to chase a dream: becoming the judge she is today, “I had always wanted to be a judge since I was young. Ever since watching Judge Wapner, the predecessor to Judge Judy,” She laughed, “I remember talking to Judge Hoffer, who is no longer living but was a President Judge here, about that path and being a judge here. He said, it’s not the normal path but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.” Following her conversation with the judge, she ran for Magistrate Judge and assumed her first bench.
As magistrate, Judge Brewbaker would often be the first and last human interaction an individual would ever have with the justice system. “That was my biggest concern with leaving the magistrate position and becoming a Common Pleas Judge. Not being able to interact with members of the community. But these courts do that for me, so…” She laughed. From warrants and tickets to treatment and prevention, Judge Brewbaker found herself focused on two things the most: community and people.
Those people in the criminal justice system are the easiest for the OIC to reach. Overdose deaths have decreased following the advent of the court, but there is still a problem: opioid deaths not involving the criminal justice system. “We’re serving our community. But that means there’s communities out there we aren’t serving.” Criminal justice has limits, but the judge sees the criminal justice community as having an even bigger opportunity. She sees places to make changes for laws to promote more treatment in exchange for criminal immunity, “In criminal justice, we have a carrot and a stick. The big carrot is getting out a jail…that doesn’t exist outside the system.” Treatment, not punishment, is always the focus from her perspective.
Communities have a greater effect on the lives of people struggling with addiction than even the court could exercise. Stigma surrounds people struggling with addiction. The Judge remarked that part of her position has become that of an advocate, “I go out to the community leaders, I go out to business leaders and I say, “Offer them a job.”” Beyond jobs, the Judge recognizes a lack of available housing when families cannot house them. Ultimately, it becomes a question of communities giving the individuals in OIC a chance, or as the judge says, “changing the conversation.”
“It’s why I speak all the time…it makes me so sad when I read conversations or comments…where people say just let them die when we talk about Narcan.” The judge has one response to the commenters: Come to Court. “We are doing everything we can do inside the court and we’re pretty effective here. But we can’t do anything about when they go out there. If the people who think they’re not worth saving would meet our participants and get to know them and see the amazing individuals they are and the potential they have…they would change their opinions and the conversation.”
Judge Brewbaker has set her sights beyond the borders of her own community to begin efforts in other places. She, alongside a number of other judges in similar courts, contributed their observations towards creating a manual with the essential elements of an Opioid Court alongside the National Bureau of Justice. The manual’s purpose would be to export the court to other jurisdictions where it could help, “The big ask is that it’s a daily court and it requires a whole team.” Despite the resources demanded, Judge Brewbaker believes in the model, “I think, financially, the numbers will support it is not a loss. Even if you don’t count lives saved…and especially counting the lives saved.”
Systemic change is Judge Brewbaker’s focus. “One person can’t make a change. I mean, not really…you can make a change for a person or two or in your family or in your world, but for one person it’s darn near impossible.” The focus for her is on humanizing addiction, “Let the community know and expose them to people.” Her goal and promise, every day, is about changing the conversation.
The Opioid Intervention Court was a challenging prospect for Cumberland County. It needed a champion and found one in Judge Brewbaker. Helping others was the backbone of her legal practice before she found herself in the position of judge for the OIC and as a national advocate for the court model. She continues her work by changing the conversation and promoting treatment for individuals struggling under the heel of addiction.
As we wrapped up, the Judge welcomed a clerk into the room. She pointed to my recorder, “Don’t forget that!” She smiled. She began reviewing documents on her desk and chatting with her clerk as she set back to work. We shook hands and she thanked me for coming to speak with her, “I always like talking about this with people.” I nodded and thanked her as I gathered up my bag. She walked me to the door before setting back to work, her judge robes still looming in the corner as she set to the papers on her desk. Before I left, she was already back to work.