Treating addiction as an ailment not a crime
A Drug Court participant discusses his progress staying clean during his weekly meeting with Greenfield District Court Judge William Mazanec III.
Judge William Mazanec III presides over Drug Court.
David Cecere, Terrence Carter and William Reipold, all DPod inmates at the Franklin County House of Correction, share short- and long-term goals at a daily meeting.
So, how are the courts coping with heroin?
While drugs account for relatively few criminal charges — the Greenfield Police Department logged 47 drug violations and 68 DUIs in 2010, in contrast to 215 break-ins or burglaries and 388 assaults, sex crimes and intimidations — local courts acknowledge addiction or substance abuse as an underlying factor in as many as 80 or 90 percent of their cases.
Many addicts find themselves in court for behavior resulting from drug use, not the drug possession itself.
So, locally, both the Greenfield and Orange district courts operate “drug court” programs, designed to get at some of the drug-related underlying problems. Despite the name, drug court is essentially an enhanced form of probation.
The program — which emphasizes solving the underlying problems instead of doling out automatic punishment — were instituted as part of Franklin County’s Reinventing Justice initiative in the 1990s.
“The concept of drug court and other problem-solving courts is that the issue that brings somebody to the court, such as substance abuse, is not a question so much of right and wrong as it is of treatment,” said Lucinda Brown, Reinventing Justice coordinator.
The model is not punitive, but neither is it lax.
Participants are subject to drug screening multiple times per week, at random, must attend five Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous or similar meetings per week and meet weekly with a judge.
This is the court aspect of the program, in which all participants meet simultaneously — to create a sense of community — and are individually brought before the judge, who hears a review of their week from a probation officer and often a treatment provider.
Part of the purpose of requiring participants to attend recovery meetings and the weekly gathering, not always easy without transportation or a habit of maintaining a routine, is to reintroduce stability and responsibility.
“It’s really about encouraging the participants in drug court to build a stable life, whatever they want in that life whether it’s employment or family or housing,” Brown said.
Beyond the results of the drug screens and fulfillment of the meeting quota, the judge hears about the participants’ progress in job hunts, housing applications or family life, and rewards strides with praise and items such as bus passes or Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards donated by a supporting foundation.
The typical route to drug court is through a plea deal. Due to the unusually stringent conditions attached to the program, the defendant must volunteer to participate. There must also be serious evidence against the defendant and the charges must be of a relatively serious nature.
Usually drug court is the last stop before jail, or may accompany jail time as a split sentence, Brown said, but the charges need not be explicitly drug- or alcohol-related.
“The record may not be possession of a drug, but there’s a constellation of charges that reflect that this person has a problem with substance addiction, if you see a lot of B&Es, if you see forgeries, identity theft, disorderly conduct, some of those may be as a result of intoxication or of some type of substance abuse,” Brown said.
Due to its rigid structure and rigorous conditions, Brown said, the program is usually reserved for people with serious, long-term substance problems and may even hurt younger, newer users.
The idea of positive reinforcement is that these long-term users with a pattern of criminal activity are inured to negative reinforcement because they are accustomed to failure and punishment, and small, token rewards can have a surprising impact.
“One woman told me afterwards that it had been over 10 years since anybody had said anything nice about her,” Brown said.
Over the course of five phases, totalling a minimum of 53 weeks, the participant must accrue 24 consecutive weeks of sobriety before they can graduate.
Brown said the program acknowledges relapse as a part of recovery, so relapses are treated with sanctions like a week in jail or a “90∕ 90,” 90 NA or AA meetings in 90 days, rather than expulsion. Expulsion means a return to the standard court process, and in many cases serving a suspended jail sentence.
Possession of heroin on a first offense is punishable by not more than two years in county jail, a fine of not more than $2,000 or both. Trafficking carries harsher sentences, tied to weight and beginning with a 3 1∕ 2-year minimum in state prison for 18 grams and building to a 12-year minimum sentence for 200 grams or more. The maximum sentence is 20 years.
Drug court success?
Success depends on the definition of success.
“If you’re looking at success as ‘have we interrupted the cycle of crime?’ — while people are in drug court they’re not out there committing crimes,” Brown said.
Proponents say drug courts, at minimum, prevent crime for the period of participation at significantly less than the cost to the taxpayer of imprisoning someone for the same period.
At the national level, detractors question the economic benefits of drug courts, their success rate and whether the concept is constitutional as practiced in some specific instances.
Brown said she doesn’t have a study of recidivism for the Franklin County program, but whatever the result it changes the user’s relationship with their drug of choice.
William F. Mazanec III, presiding judge of the Greenfield District Court, has been with the program since its inception, developing the original grant request as a defense attorney with now retired district court judges Herbert Hodos and Thomas Merrigan.
Mazanec said prior to that drug addiction was dealt with in the courts by penalizing rather than treating it.
Based on his impression from both sides of the bar as a prosecutor, defense lawyer and judge, Mazanec estimates 80-90 percent of crimes in district court result from substance abuse, with a small number of addicts or chronic users accounting for a disproportionate number of crimes.
The courts might repeatedly imprison an addict who would immediately return to addiction, and to crime to fund it.
“If you don’t treat it you’re allowing them to become a crime wave,” Mazanec said. Submitting to the close monitoring of the drug court prevents home and car break-ins, and may be the participant’s first solid chance to get clean.
Recidivism is low among the program’s graduates, Mazanec contends, particularly if you limit the definition to exclude victimless offenses such as driving without a license. “We really don’t see them,” Mazanec said. “It’s very, very rare.”
Matching the participants with the appropriate form of treatment is an important aspect of the process, Mazanec said.
“People arrive at addiction through different means,” Mazanec said. While addiction doesn’t discriminate based on socio-economic status or family background and may entrap pain patients, there may be underlying issues requiring treatment before addiction treatment can succeed.
“Some people do need a form of medication to address an issue they are self-medicating for with street drugs,” he said.
Brown said she is a big believer that addiction is a disease, it is something that happens to people and ruins their lives.
“No one ever chooses to become an addict, and it doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
The drug court model is a treatment and, though coerced, Brown believes it is more successful than voluntary treatment.
According to the Greenfield probation department, drug court has had six graduates since last March and, if all goes well, 10 more will graduate within the next six months.
While drug court may not be an appropriate alternative for less established users, or people who abuse drugs or alcohol but are not yet dependent, there is another alternative within the reinventing justice system.
Not drug-specific but still applicable, according to Brown, the Franklin County Restorative Probation, instituted in 1998, is designed to give nonviolent criminals a chance to understand and learn from mistakes.
The process is lengthy and involves meetings with a board of volunteer community members and, ideally, the victim of the crime. Brown said 40 people graduated from the program over the past 12 months, sent from the Orange and Greenfield district courts and the Franklin/Hampshire County Juvenile Court.
In all cases, sentencing is up to the judge, but the prosecutor and defense lawyer submit sentencing requests or collaborate on plea deals.
“When I handle a case I always look to see wherever possible whether a person is dealing drugs to support their own habit or whether they are the next level up and are purely committed to intentionally poisoning other people for their own profit,” wrote prosecutor Jeremy Bucci of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. Bucci is in charge of the DA’s superior court drug prosecution unit, and spends most of his time in superior rather than district court.
In addition to drug court and similar programs, the methadone and Suboxone programs are within a judge’s discretion to order, according to Bucci.
Register of Probate John Merrigan, in the Franklin Probate and Family Court, said that court will be piloting some new initiatives, possibly including a problem-solving court, once it is moved into a temporary location for the upcoming courthouse renovation. “If these pilot projects work out, we would then look to fully implement them when we return to our Main Street location,” he said.
Merrigan said many cases brought to probate court and district court are intertwined, but they are dealt with separately and the problem-solving court model may be part of the solution, with a focus on decreasing recidivism and the growing substance abuse problem.
Jail and drugs
Substance abuse is the underlying or direct cause of many of the cases brought to family court, divorce and child custody for instance, Merrigan said, possibly as high as 80 percent.
The local jail system also acknowledges the link.
Groups of Franklin County House of Corrections inmates regularly attend outside NA and AA meetings, and this spring one of four cell pods at the jail was in the process of transforming into the designated treatment pod, D Pod.
“Eighty percent of our inmates have issues with substance abuse,” said Sheriff Christopher Donelan, who oversees the county jail. That percentage, Donelan said, is relatively steady over time and across the state and country.
“I would say that the most significant change that we’re making to our treatment model is, historically, treatment was offered to inmates who wanted it, and some of the more hardened, more hard-core inmates just avoided it,” Donelan said.
“What we have going now is a treatment program driven by incentives where we push the most difficult inmates into treatment ... They’re the ones most likely to commit more crimes, so we have the greatest impact if we push our resources toward them.”
Incentives include good-time credit for complying with requirements, the ability to work jobs inside the facility, extra canteen privileges, an extra movie on the weekend.
D Pod is physically the same as the other pods, but Donelan said he has tried to transform it from the typical jail milieu into a treatment community with a morning meeting, self-initiated and self-led support group and AA meetings.
Inmates aren’t allowed to transition into D Pod until they agree to comply with the treatment program, Donelan said, and if they are successful they may move from there into the Kimball Reentry House.
Occupying the old jail building, the reentry house is itself new, about a year old in May. The house is a recovery based treatment program with additional educational programs and classes. Kimball House inmates are allowed into the community, with permission, and with frequent verification. Reasons for leaving include group visits to NA and AA meetings, Donelan said.
As a medium security local house of correction, Donelan said the majority of inmates are from the community and most will return to the community after an average sentence of 90 days, and for the most part were sentenced for behavior while drunk or high.
Participating in recovery outside jail helps them establish relationships on the outside, increasing the chances they will continue their recovery once free.
“The philosophy is that if you target your resources towards the most difficult inmates, (those) who are most likely to commit new crimes, and if you have just a 20 percent success rate, you can cut crime in the community by large numbers because these are the guys who are committing crimes over and over again,” Donelan said.
“The bottom line is this enhances public safety, it reduces crime, and it provides these people the tools and the opportunity to change their lives and improve their community.”
In February, Elaine Ballard, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office substance abuse program coordinator, said she had 60 to 70 men in treatment. Ballard said some don’t make it past Foster’s Super Market, just down the street, before they’re off the wagon.
Counting the people who come back can cause some to loose faith in recovery, but not Ballard. “I see the people who don’t come back,” she said.