Marin Independent Journal on 4/22/2018 by Gary Klien
In Marin County’s drug court, failure is common and disastrous, while success is measured in relatively modest terms: steady employment, sobriety, abstinence from crime.
Michael Fielding took the success concept to a higher level. He got himself admitted to law school on a full scholarship.
Fielding, who graduated from the drug court program last week after 13 months, said his advice for drug defendants is simple: “Tell the truth.”
“Sometimes it’s the only thing you can control,” said Fielding, 26, of Novato. “You have to be able to trust yourself, and the way you do that is through spoken truth.”
Fielding’s legal problems started in February 2017 with a pair of arrests for drug possession and allegedly driving under the influence of drugs. One of the incidents was a rear-end collision that caused minor injuries in the other car.
Fielding spent 117 days in jail and entered the drug court program. The strict regime involves regular court appearances, substance abuse treatment, counseling, random drug testing and other obligations.
Those who fulfill the program’s requirements, a process that takes about a year to 18 months, can get felony charges reduced and outstanding jail time waived. Those who fail get funneled back into the regular criminal justice pipeline.
The drug court accepts about 40 to 45 defendants a year, said D.J. Pierce, a supervisor with the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services. The completion rate for the 2013-17 period was 46 percent, she said, on the low end of the national average range. Just a few defendants have graduated so far this year.
The program is partially funded by federal grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Marin’s latest grant is for $322,000 a year for three years, Pierce said.
The drug court includes a judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer, a psychologist and a manager from the county health department. Judge Andrew Sweet has been presiding over the court in recent years.
Drug court proceedings can be lively events, with participants cheering each other in support. But sometimes a defendant gets caught in a lie or a program violation and gets tossed back in jail on the spot.
“It’s a tough program,” said Deborah Lewis, the public defender assigned to the court. “You have a lot of people who know your business.”
Fielding’s performance in the program got his felony for intoxicated driving reduced to a misdemeanor, said prosecutor Nicole Pantaleo. She also dismissed two misdemeanor drug possession counts.
Moreover, the remaining 233 days on Fielding’s jail sentence were dismissed, and his probation period was reduced from five years to three.
Pantaleo described Fielding as “extremely humble” as well as “contemplative, serious, remorseful, insightful and mature.” She said his law school admission is an “incredible achievement.”
“My opinion is that everyone who graduates and remains sober and crime-free has a major achievement,” she said. “For some people, just remaining sober and staying employed is an incredible accomplishment.”
Fielding, who was a sociology major at Chico State University and has family in the legal sector, said he made up his mind to pursue law school during his time in jail. He started reading books such as “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky; “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote; and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander.
He took the Law School Admission Test while he was in the drug court program and says he scored a “pretty solid” 152. The score range is 120 to 180.
Then he applied to law schools. Anthony Niedwiecki, dean of the law school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said the staff was impressed by Fielding’s personal story as well as his grades.
The school not only accepted Fielding but waived his tuition. Niedwiecki said the school gets about 1,400 applications a year, accepts about half the applicants and grants full scholarships to just a “small percentage.”
“We’re a school that likes to give opportunities to people, and he fits the type of student we’d like to give that opportunity to,” Niedwiecki said. “You want to look for people who take an experience, learn from than experience and use it in a positive way.”
Fielding will start at the law school in August. In the meantime, he is doing preparatory reading between his shifts at a grocery store in Novato.
Fielding credited his family’s emotional and financial support for getting him through the court program and on his way into law school. He hopes to practice criminal law, perhaps even as a prosecutor, and says landing in jail “saved my life.”
“Sometimes sending people to jail is the wakeup call they need,” he said.