Skip Navigation
Regional News
Jeff in class. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Jeff in class. Photo: Natasha Haverty

Alternatives to Incarceration: One man enters the system

Listen to this story
When Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through his landmark drug laws in New York forty years ago, he argued that any alternatives to his new tough on crime zero tolerance approach had failed:

"I was on this kick of trying to get the addict off the street, into treatment. Now this was a beautiful concept, except it just didn't happen to relate to the realities because the pushers keep finding new people. And I have to say that as far as I am aware, there is no known, absolute cure for addiction."

But in recent years, those Rockefeller Drug Laws have gone through a series of reforms. These days, cash-strapped states like New York are struggling to reduce inmate populations so that they can close expensive prisons. Governor Andrew Cuomo plans to mothball two more correctional facilities downstate this year.

And reducing the number of people behind bars means experimenting with diversion programs for non-violent drug offenders: States are offering counseling programs, rehabilitation and therapy, and opening alternative, "drug courts." The goal is to battle drug addiction without incarceration.

This week, as part of our Prison Time Media Project, Natasha Haverty follows the journey of one man through a system that's trying to turn away from mass incarceration. Here's part one of her three-part series.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this


One night, six years ago, Jeff was driving around his hometown of Hornell, a small town in Western New York. It was a little after 2:00. The stores were closed, the houses were dark. He pulled off at a strip mall. 

"Whatever little logic was left in my body was trying fight back and say 'what are you doing!? You can't do this!' and the other part of me was saying you have to do this, you need to do this, you need the drug, it's right there, why are you thinking about this?

Jeff was planning to break into a pharmacy owned by the family of one of his friends. They'd taken him to Florida when he was a kid. Now he was standing outside their business, holding a brick in his hand. 

"And this is as much thought as I put into it: there's drugs in the pharmacy, all I have to do is break in, all the drugs I want are there. I'm going to do it." 

Jeff was so desperate to get in that he jumped right through the broken glass. A few minutes later he walked out with as many bottles of painkillers as he could carry.

A little later, he showed up at his friend Chris's house, " with a huge gash on his arm, and a kitchen towel soaked in blood. And he wanted me to stitch his arm up for him."

Chris had been Jeff's best friend since childhood. Chris says he knew Jeff was using drugs, but he didn't know how bad things had gotten. 

That night Jeff lied. He told Chris, and the doctors at the emergency room that he'd been out jogging, and fell on some glass. 

"The next day," says Chris, "my mom said 'there was a break in at Weaver's Pharmacy—' before she finished the sentence, I knew."

What Chris knew was that Jeff had crossed another line. His best friend wasn't just a guy who used too many drugs anymore — now he was one of those people we most fear: an addict willing to steal and lie to feed his habit.

What sentence for drug crimes? 

Huddleston, West, Doug Marlowe and Rachel Casebolt. Painting the Current Picture: A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other <br />Problem-Solving Court Programs in the United States. National Drug Court Institute 2(1) 2008.
Huddleston, West, Doug Marlowe and Rachel Casebolt. Painting the Current Picture: A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other
Problem-Solving Court Programs in the United States. National Drug Court Institute 2(1) 2008.
 Every year the Urban Institute estimates that more than a million Americans like Jeff are arrested for crimes related to drug abuse. According to the Bureau of Justice, almost a third of state prisoners and a quarter of federal prisoners committed their crime while they were on drugs.

Jag Davies is with the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working towards alternatives to our current drug laws, which often set long mandatory minimum sentences. He says in the '80s and '90s, the war on drugs was escalating and the number of drug arrests exploded, along with the prison population. And, he says, "millions of petty cases were flooding the court system."

More than half the people in federal prison are serving time for nonviolent drug crimes, but, Jag says, "over the past ten or twenty years, there's a political consensus that's emerged that says we can't arrest and incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."

After the break-in, Jeff could have gone to prison for four years. But he was a first-time offender, he hadn't physically harmed anyone and he had no plan to sell the drugs he stole. 

So the DA agreed to send Jeff instead into an alternative program known as "Drug Court." 

It worked like this: If Jeff agreed to be on state-supervised drug treatment and was successful at staying off drugs, he could avoid serving time and his felony would be reduced to a misdemeanor. He could start over. 

Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, says drug courts are one tool that states are trying to reduce the pressure and cost mass incarceration. He says trying treatment before incarceration just makes sense.

This isn't a small trial program. There are 148 drug courts in New York state – and more than 77,000 people have participated so far.

But here's the thing: They don't always work. According to New York's drug court program, only half of the people who enter the program have made it through to graduation. 

Right from the start, Jeff says he had doubts that the program would help him get clean. He says counselors offered to put him on Suboxone. 

That's a drug that's often used to treat opiate addiction – but it's also a drug that Jeff had already been using for months on the street to get high.

There's this thing called lack of time perspective, in addiction. What that means is you don't think about the future, you think about the present, you think about I want to get high now, I don't care what happens later.


"So it's like, how easy a program is that if I can get on suboxone, which I loved, and just do that for a couple of years, I'll get off with a misdemeanor!" 

Jeff was being offered a second chance and a lot of help to keep him out of prison. But he says his desire for drugs — and the fear of going into withdrawal — eclipsed everything. 

"There's this thing called lack of time perspective, in addiction. What that means is you don't think about the future, you think about the present, you think about I want to get high now, I don't care what happens later."

Jeff's mom, Karen, says she and her husband knew the program wasn't working for their son.

Karen says she would find on their bank statement that Jeff had used their credit card to buy prescription drugs. Or they'd get a phone call saying he'd failed another drug test. But instead of getting kicked out, Jeff would just get another chance. 

Finally, after more than three years in the program, Jeff was caught with drugs in a room provided by the drug court program. He was out of second chances.  

"It's disappointing"

John Roman says Jeff's story is disappointingly common. He's a senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute, and has been researching drug courts for the past fifteen years.

Roman says that drug court participants are only 10-15 percent less likely to be arrested again. That might sound like a small number, but Roman says drug courts are still one of the most effective ways to deal with guys like Jeff – keeping thousands of people out of prison every year. 

Marlowe, D.B., et al. Matching judicial supervision to clients' risk status in drug court. Crime & Delinquency 52, 52-76, 2006.
Marlowe, D.B., et al. Matching judicial supervision to clients' risk status in drug court. Crime & Delinquency 52, 52-76, 2006.


"That modest reduction in new criminal offending is way better than anything else we're doing!  To be disappointed in someone who doesn't take advantage of potential opportunity misses the point of what recovery and substance abuse is all about."

But Jeff found himself on the wrong side of that equation. He was headed to prison, on track to join the millions of other nonviolent drug offenders who spend years, even decades, of their lives behind bars. His mom Karen says she was devastated.

"You cannot imagine. It was so painful. All of the hopes you have. When he went to jail I wanted to say don't you realize!? You have a ticket now. You don't have to go prison, you don't have to be a felon. And now you're in jail, and you are a felon. My son is a felon. My son, Who I dreamt of being a doctor. Who we all believed you were going to set the world on end. You're in jail. 

Jeff says it's true that he was given a great opportunity at drug court, and failed: "Just that overwhelming feeling of: I'm going to prison." He says he's always been told he's more than this, but "the sad truth that I'm just a piece of shit is coming to fruition." He says it's the lowest he can imagine being.

But the new pressure to find less costly ways to deal with non-violent drug offenders like Jeff continues, even behind bars. It turns out Jeff wasn't sent away for the full four years. Instead, he was sent to an alternative "shock" prison designed to teach inmates life skills that might help them beat their addiction. 

Jeff's story continues tomorrow at Moriah Shock Prison in the Adirondacks. 

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.