Ex-judge called on to scrutinize central Arkansas drug court after prosecutor called it 'catastrophe'

Posted: June 22, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday named a retired circuit judge, Bentley Story of Forrest City, to untangle objections and controversies surrounding state court operations in Pulaski and Perry counties.

The order comes as jurists and court officials debate the future of the state's oldest court for drug addicts, presided over by Circuit Judge Mary McGowan for about two decades.

Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley sent a letter to the Supreme Court early this month, calling the drug-court program a "catastrophe" with a high rearrest rate.

Story will review case assignment proposals and objections for the 6th Judicial Circuit, the court ordered. He will read studies, and interview judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other staff members.

Story faces a Sept. 1 deadline for making recommendations.

Judge Vann Smith and Jegley praised the appointment.

"Good choice," said Smith, the circuit's administrative judge.

Jegley has accused McGowan of bullying behavior in court with defendants, lawyers and court staff members. The prosecutor has refused to send a new case to drug court since March 2017.

McGowan has denied abusive behavior toward anyone. Because of jail crowding, her court hasn't been able to use short jail stays for drug-court defendants, she said. As a result, recidivism rose.

The drug-court program for civilian offenders and military veterans is intended to move addicts toward treatment and court-monitored rehabilitation rather than prison.

The circuit's judges submitted an administrative plan on June 30, 2017, to the Supreme Court. It was accompanied by "many objections," according to Thursday's Supreme Court order. The high court did not approve it.

On June 5, the circuit judges submitted a second plan, but "the underlying factual disputes remain unresolved," the high court's order said. "It is not the typical role of this court to sit as a finder of fact."

The justices appointed Story as a "special master" to conduct the review.

In addition to the drug court dispute plaguing the central Arkansas court district, Judge Wendell Griffen wrote that he objects to a case management plan provision that bans him from hearing criminal or civil cases that involve the death penalty or execution protocol.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has barred Griffen from hearing those cases after he took part in an April 2017 rally organized by death penalty opponents. Griffen is suing the justices in federal court over their decision.

Information for this article was contributed by John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 06/22/2018