Judge Dread: Michael Kwan | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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March 24, 2010 News » Cover Story

Judge Dread: Michael Kwan 

If you're getting high while enrolled in Taylorsville drug court, Michael Kwan may make your life hell. Or not.

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Cusp of Greatness
Deuel’s decision to opt-out of drug court began one September 2009 night at 3 a.m., when sick with the flu, she took cough syrup, even though she knew it would probably show up on a test.

At peer review, her fellow defendants recommended $30 weekly alcohol tests and 10 hours of community service, to which Kwan agreed. Deuel didn’t have money for the tests, so she asked JSS if she could wait until she got paid the following Monday to do it. “If I didn’t get it done, they told me I would be noncompliant and taken to jail,” she says.

On Oct. 20, 2009, she told Kwan she was opting out of drug court. He took away her drivers license for three years, put her on treatment and probation for a year and gave her two days of JSS-supervised house arrest. He also ordered her to pay $600 in court fines and $600 in JSS fees, which she says she didn’t have. A month later, she appealed his sentence to West Jordan 3rd District Court. Kwan cannot comment on Deuel’s case because of the ongoing appeal.

Jackson, however, vents her frustration. Deuel, she says, who did not pay for her classes, was so close to graduating. “I don’t like to see people on the cusp of greatness just giving up.” She expresses surprise at Deuel’s complaints. “She never once approached me over any concerns over things occurring in her life.”

Poverty, Deuel says, is at the root of why she didn’t complete drug court. “The only reason I haven’t graduated is because I’m too poor for everything they’ve asked me to pay.” She found Jackson a distant, unapproachable figure with a dark temper. JSS “doesn’t see you as a person. You’re a kid and they own you. They don’t care who you are. You have no rights. They don’t treat you like people, they treat you like money, a number.” Jumping Through Hoops
While Deuel’s story is similar to complaints from a number of Taylorsville Drug Court defendants City Weekly interviewed, others report positive experiences of drug court.

Michael G., 32 years old, is a passionate believer in its merits. “I went from a train wreck who was destroying my life to the opposite.” He requested anonymity because, while he’s proud of who he is now, he’s not proud of who he was before he ended up in Taylorsville Drug Court.

Ten years ago, Independence, Miss., born Michael was drunk on vodka and high on drugs when he hit a stationary car on Interstate 15. He was charged with four misdemeanors, including a DUI, and took a plea in abeyance in exchange for getting the DUI off his record, a drug-court incentive the Utah Legislature prohibited in 2007.

To “jump through [drug court’s] hoops,” he attended two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, went to weekly group counseling and took two weekly drug tests. He quit marijuana but continued drinking, hiding it for almost a year. “I thought I could beat the system,” he says, but in 2002 went to JSS drunk, testing three times over the limit.

Kwan and Michael’s peers were not impressed, and he restarted the program. “It opened my eyes that something needed to change.” He stopped drinking for good, he says, and five years after he opted-in to drug court, he graduated. He went on to earn two associate degrees and now works as a facilities maintenance technician in a cookie factory.

Without drug court, he says, “I’d either be dead or in prison.” Fighting for a Future
On March 12, 2010, Kwan declared his candidacy as a judge in Taylorsville. In November, Taylorsville voters will decide whether to return him to the bench.

Lorenzo Miller expresses concern over how Kwan’s court has become “more lenient and more tolerant of the offenders’ failure to comply, and the court holds them less accountable.” Lack of consistency in sanctions in drug court can undermine its effectiveness, says assistant state court administrator Rick Schwermer, of the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts.

Lorenzo Miller finds that, recently, something is missing. Kwan, he says, “lacks the zeal that he once brought to his position and the bench.”

Kwan says his passion for drug court is “if anything, stronger.” He wants to run a drug court as long as he is convinced it’s effective. “I believe in what I am doing. I will fight for the people in this program trying to make changes in their lives.”

One person trying to change her life is Deuel, who recently started work at a Subway near her mother’s trailer park. On March 15, she appeared before Judge Robert Adkins in West Jordan 3rd District Court to appeal Kwan’s sentence. “I just hope I can get this done and over with,” she said in the courtroom. Now, she faces both the two charges she pleaded guilty to and two domestic-violence charges that were dismissed as part of the plea in abeyance. Her public defender requested a continuance, and the next hearing is on April 12.

A few months after Deuel’s 21st birthday and after opting out of drug court, her parents took her to a bar for her first legal drink. She looked across the crowded bar and marveling, thought, “Welcome to the adult world.”

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