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Cooking heroin. Experts say the drug is cheap and easy to find in the North Country. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heroin.JPG">Psychonaught</a>, public domain
Cooking heroin. Experts say the drug is cheap and easy to find in the North Country. Photo: Psychonaught, public domain

Drug courts offer rehab alternative as heroin abuse surges

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As the use of heroin surges, many people arrested for drug-related crimes are ending up in drug court. It's one of the so-called 'problem solving courts' that have emerged in recent years. And they rely on the discrimination and skill of a judge.

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Reported by

David Chanatry
Reporter, New York Reporting Project at Utica College

Every Thursday afternoon in the Oneida Country Courthouse in Utica, the honorable John Balzano seems to be equal parts judge, guidance counselor, and support group leader. This is drug court, and Balzano dispenses justice here with an emphasis on rehabilitation. "It's a different approach," he says. "It's a program that hopefully brings people back into the community and not repeat crimes."

On this day about 40 people wait their turn before the judge. They were all addicts arrested for nonviolent crimes. If a team that includes a district attorney and public defender, case managers and Judge Balzano think they're good candidates for drug court, they'll offer them a deal.

Instead of doing time, they agree to a number of supervised conditions: They have to enter treatment and be clean for a year, come to court nearly every week, have a job or be in school, have a safe place to live. The court can tell them to avoid certain people. They have to be off public assistance and complete 60 hours of community service. And if they don't do all those things? "There will be a jail sentence or state prison sentence and there's no renegotiating of any kind. That is the deal from day one."

That sure penalty provides strong motivation to stay in the program. And since many would otherwise get right out of jail and commit the same kind of crimes, the program saves money, says Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara: "Many of these people, they're good for 10-20 convictions, that's a lot of time, a lot of victims, it's a lot of police time, it's a lot of lawyering time. So if you can get one of them, just think of everything you're freeing up."

But success comes in fits and starts. At first, relapse is common. If anyone breaks the rules, a system of graduated punishment is applied. Maybe a weekend in jail, then a week. Participants say they start the program simply to stay out of jail. That was the case for a young woman named Jillian, arrested for burglary to support her addiction to heroin and crack cocaine.

She says she didn't want the opportunity to go to rehab, instead of jail, because she didn't want to stop using heroin. But, finally, after two years of trying to beat the system, and six months behind bars, she changed her mind. Now she has a job and is on track to "graduate" from drug court. "I lost myself somewhere in the mix and had to find myself again, which was the hardest and scariest part. It's tough love, they're here to help you and you got to stick it out."

Numerous studies indicate the courts significantly reduce crime and drug use. They were first tried in New York almost 20 years ago. Now there's a drug court in every county in the state. About half the participants in adult drug court finish the program, although the number varies widely from court to court, often depending on the skill of the judge.

"There's more thinking allowed on the bench now." William Virkler is a sitting town justice and a professor of criminal justice at Utica College. He says the pendulum is swinging away from mandated sentences to more discriminating ones. "I think the measure of a good judge is to take a fact pattern and be harsh when it's time to be harsh and be lenient when it's time to be lenient," he says. "And perhaps defer to other courts like drug court, mental health court to see if that system might fix the problem."

Federal judges are now beginning to create programs modeled on the state drug courts that allow for similar alternatives to incarceration for low level drug crimes.

David Chanatry is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

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