Courts Turn to New Strategies to Combat Drug Crime

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In light of President Obama’s recent historic visit to a Federal prison in Oklahoma to tout his criminal justice reform proposals, we take a look back at story that first ran on NYRP in June 2014.

This story originally aired on WSKG, Binghamton.

Listen to the story.

Read the script

Every Thursday afternoon in the Utica Courthouse, the honorable John Balzano seems to be equal parts judge:

“How do you plead guilty or not guilty?”

Guidance counselor:

“I understand you’re making good progress on your G-E-D program.”

And the leader of a support group:

“Rebecca is clean 260 days.”

This is drug court. Judge Balzano dispenses justice here with an emphasis on rehabilitation.

“It’s a different approach to everything, says Balzano. “It’s a program that hopefully brings people back into the community and not repeat crimes when they complete the program.”

As the use of heroin surges, many people arrested for drug-related crimes are ending up here in drug court, one of the so called problem solving courts that have been started in recent years.

In one recent session, about 40 people waited their turn before the judge. They were all addicts arrested for non-violent 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 offer them a deal.

“You also understand there will be random drug screens” said Balzano from the bench, “here at court or at home, wherever we deem appropriate, do you understand that?”

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 a defendant doesn’t do all those things, Balzano told him what to expect.  “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,”says McNamara. “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.

“You know what the consequences are. Change your ways Jillian, you don’t want to go to state prison”, Balzano admonished from the bench.

Participants say they start the program simply to stay out of jail. That was the case for this young woman, arrested for burglary to support her addiction to heroin and crack cocaine.

“I did not want this opportunity”, she said before her latest court appeaerance. “because I did not want to stop.”

Finally, after two years of trying to beat the system, and 6 months behind bars, she decided to change her behavior. 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,” she said. “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. First tried in New York almost 20 years ago, drug courts are now 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,” says Professor William Virkler. 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 its time to be harsh and be lenient when its 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.