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After a decade, a bold experiment offering second chances pays off

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As Jefferson County continues to grow and jail overcrowding continues to be a problem, Drug Treatment Court, which began as a bold experiment, is starting to look less like a calculated gamble and more like a prescient solution to the demands placed on the county’s infrastructure by the increasing population.

Once a radical contradiction to the accepted wisdom that harsh penalties were necessary for drug-related crimes, drug courts are becoming a widely accepted alternative to a strategy that many have found to be counterproductive and cost-prohibitive.

Jefferson County’s program, which was started by County Judge Kim H. Martusewicz in 2002, offers an alternative path to residents who have committed nonviolent felonies in which drug or alcohol dependency — or both — is an underlying cause.

According to numbers provided by the county’s confidential assistant for fiscal affairs, Gregory C. Hudson, it costs an average of $124 per day to house someone in the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building and $90 to house an inmate elsewhere.

And with the jail bursting at the seams, some days there are more than 60 inmates at other jails throughout the state. County taxpayers can spend more than $45,000 a year on just one of those inmates.

A number of them are waiting for court dates and cannot afford bail.

By removing nonviolent drug offenders from that population, programs such as drug court have saved taxpayers a significant amount of money in the last decade.

There are now 44 people in the drug court program, and 153 have graduated since 2003.

Based on a 2003 study, drug courts saved New York an estimated $254 million by diverting some 18,000 nonviolent drug offenders into treatment.

Another 2003 study found that drug courts in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Suffolk, Syracuse and Rochester generated an average 29 percent reduction in recidivism over a three-year post-arrest period and an average 32 percent reduction over a one-year post-program period.

Prison time looms

According to Judge Martusewicz, defendants who end up in drug court often have failed other programs. They typically are referred to the court by their attorneys.

What makes the difference in drug court, he said, is the fact that defendants coming before the court face long prison sentences. To participate in the program, they first must plead guilty to their crimes.

This lets defendants feel the full weight of a prison sentence. Any serious violation of the terms of the program and they face years of prison time.

It’s part of a carrot-and-stick approach that gives incentives for good behavior and provides serious consequences for people who do not follow the rules in their contracts.

A 2004 report from the National Drug Court Institute said that “most addicts and alcoholics, given a choice, would not enter a treatment program voluntarily. Those who do enter programs rarely complete them; among such dropouts, relapse within a year is the norm.”

“We’ve found that coercive treatment is the best type of treatment,” Judge Martesuwicz said. Most drug courts — 58 percent, according to a 2009 national survey — follow this model.

This idea took some getting used to for the Jefferson County district attorney, who is paid to be tough on crime.

“Certainly part of my perspective even with the drug court is to be tough on repeat offenders where the evidence supports it. To embrace the thought of giving them one more shot at rehabilitation has, especially initially, taken some thought and some getting used to,” District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert said.

When the program was first discussed, she was adamant that defendants be required to plead guilty. Once that stipulation was met, her mind was set a little more at ease.

“The hope is this breaks the cycle for the individual and for his or her family. As a society we can all contribute in some form or another. Especially individuals who have not been employed and owe restitutions as part of their actions, this will help them make restitution to those they’ve victimized,” Ms. Intschert said.

That prison sentence lurking in the background, along with several other features, shapes drug court’s approach to the way the criminal justice system works.

It’s intensive.

“We’re just so all over them,” said Jennifer L. Hudson Mosher, the drug court coordinator. “They’re going to treatment two or three times a week, calling every day, going in front of the judge every week.”

Abuse problems abound

Judge Martusewicz calls himself the busiest felony judge in upstate New York. At 454 cases last year, his workload was almost twice that of the average felony judge.

“Defendants in 70 to 80 percent of the felonies that come before the Jefferson County Court system have alcohol or substance abuse problems,” he said.

Because of eligibility limitations, the program can accept only 8 to 10 percent of those. Because so few felony defendants are admitted to the program, the judge occasionally describes it as an “exclusive club.”

Each person receives a different “disposition” tailored to meet his or her specific needs. Their sentences await them if they fail to meet the rigors of the program.

Penalties are often meted out swiftly.

During a recent session of the court, two defendants in the program tested positive for narcotics and failed to show up for their mandatory court appearances. The judge issued bench warrants for both people on the spot.

At the same time, drug court redefines a defendant’s relationship with authority. Instead of making cold pronouncements from on high, Judge Martusewicz and the drug court team take a vested interest in each person in the program.

The judge often will call for a round of applause after learning that defendants have set personal records for being clean and sober.

“When have they ever had a person in authority say that to them?” Ms. Hudson Mosher asked. “He’s so involved in the defendants’ lives. He really means it.”

‘Failure’ often succeeds

“Even those who ‘fail’ the drug court system don’t really fail because they’re grateful and thankful for what they’ve learned here,” Judge Martusewicz said.

“If we don’t succeed in helping defendants make it through the full program, drug court has had a positive impact on their lives. They are less likely to reoffend,” Ms. Hudson Mosher said. She said she occasionally has people who have failed and served out their prison sentences visit her to express their gratitude for the skills they learned in the program.

“If you’re only doing this because you want to avoid prison, that can only keep you clean and sober for so long,” Ms. Hudson Mosher said. “I’ve had a lot of years of experience and I feel like I’m a pretty good judge of who’s in it for the right reason and who’s in it for the wrong reason.”

In addition to appearing weekly before the judge, newly admitted offenders attend various levels of individual treatment, ranging from inpatient to outpatient and sometimes including prolonged stays at rehabilitation clinics.

The system is designed to have levels to give defendants “somewhere to go” if a course of treatment isn’t working, according to Ms. Hudson Mosher.

Some defendants resist the demands of the program. Increased monitoring or a shift in treatment status can be recommended in such cases.

Judge Martusewicz said that members of the drug court team expect bumps along the road to recovery, and the program is structured to allow for some of that.

Defendants also are assigned a certain number of “self-helps” per week, which can include attending Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

If defendants do well during the first phase of the program, they move on to biweekly court appearances. If they do well during the second phase, they start appearing before the judge monthly.

The time it takes to complete the program varies on the individual and can range from one year to two and a half years or longer.

Graduates celebrate

Offenders can vary greatly in age as well.

At a ceremony Thursday, Judge Martusewicz introduced a class of drug court graduates ranging from 21 to 67 years of age.

In contrast to the normal sessions of drug court, which are mostly quiet even before court is called to order, the graduation ceremony begins with excited and expectant chatter as families and friends of defendants fill the benches in support of those close to them.

The ceremony begins with remarks from Judge Martusewicz, who takes time to acknowledge and talk about each graduate before Ms. Hudson Mosher introduces each of them to the room.

After receiving hugs from Ms. Hudson Mosher and Tabatha M. Sellick, case manager and acting Lewis County coordinator, and a plaque from the judge, the graduates address the attendees, often making highly personal comments about their recovery processes.

“Whether you start drinking at 14 or 40, like I did, addiction will get you. ... And I just want to thank everybody for giving me my life back,” one said.

“I wanted to die but was too afraid to pull the trigger and I thought drugs would be the easy way out,” another said. “... I chased this recovery like I chased my drugs and I have to thank N.A. for that. ... I’m really grateful, I really am, for the program and I want to give back. ’Cause that’s what it’s all about — one addict helping another.”

Walking another bridge

After they graduate, defendants move on to a period of supervision provided by either the Probation Department or the Watertown Urban Mission Bridge Program, where they participate in additional treatment involving group discussion, volunteer service activities and Stop DWI victim impact panels.

The victim impact panels give drug court graduates an opportunity to speak with families who have lost members to drunken-driving accidents.

“They look into the eyes of these families that are hurting and they see what’s going to happen if they do keep drinking and driving,” said Salvatore J. Ciulo, who runs the Bridge Program.

A retired Army first sergeant, Mr. Ciulo developed skills in the Army that translate well into his role as case manager.

“They’re no different than soldiers. I’m trying to keep them alive. ’Cause what does addiction do to you? It can kill you,” Mr. Ciulo said.

Volunteer activities and sports are keys to helping graduates stay away from situations and patterns of behavior that landed them in trouble, Mr. Ciulo said.

“To make sobriety stick, people have to find other things to do,” he said. “You’ve got to work every day on your recovery to keep clean.”

Mr. Ciulo said that seven out of 10 drug court graduates complete the Bridge Program, make full payments and restitution for their crimes and treatment and return to being healthy, contributing members of society.

“If I was successful, it was in giving them the tools and education to fight their addiction. They’re all good people. They just got caught up in a bad part of their lives,” Mr. Ciulo said.

“Jail would be punitive and fulfill that function. But when you get out of jail without proper treatment and care, you are likely to reoffend. This program still fulfills the punitive aspect, but it’s less costly to the taxpayer and better for the individual,” he said.

The Bridge Program costs $65,000 to $70,000 a year to run; $26,000 of that comes from the state. The rest comes from private donations and the Run for Recovery Race held every September. The program also receives $11,000 from Jefferson County Stop DWI program, which is funded by fines levied against people convicted of driving while intoxicated.

There are 37 clients in the program.

“That savings to the state and county taxpayer is tremendous when you think that to save a million dollars it costs less than what it would cost to house one of these individuals for a year in jail,” said Andrew G. Mangione, Urban Mission development director.

Tough team works

Though drug court has been described as Judge Martusewicz’s “baby,” it really is a team effort. Every Thursday at 9 a.m., 11 people gather around a long table in the cramped jury room off the court and discuss cases for two and a half hours before court is called into session.

“The vast majority of the work is done in this room,” Judge Martusewicz said. “Most of the time I already know the answers to the questions I ask.”

On any given Thursday, Judge Martusewicz, Ms. Intschert, Ms. Hudson Mosher, Ms. Sellick and Mr. Ciulo are seated around the table with VetCenter counselor James M. Sheets, veterans justice outreach coordinator Lauri A. Dunn, probation officer Darcy L. Pitkin, Chief Assistant Public Defender Laurel A. McCarthy, Credo substance abuse counselor Allyson M. Engelhart and Katherine B. Hutton, who is a counselor at Credo’s women’s residential program.

Blunt opinions are encouraged during the group’s discussions, which Mr. Ciulo described as “colorful and honest,” as a way to make better decisions and craft effective treatment strategies.

There were more than 2,400 drug courts in the country and 173 in New York as of 2009. These courts include adult, DWI, juvenile, family, tribal, re-entry, federal and veteran drug/treatment courts.

Calling the harsh penalties of the Rockefeller drug laws an “abject failure,” Ms. Hudson Mosher said that specialty courts such as drug court are the future.

“We have tried incarcerating our way out of social problems and it hasn’t worked,” she said.

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