Drug court: A new chance for offenders in Berkshire County

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PITTSFIELD — In a Franklin County courthouse in Greenfield recently, the proceedings were anything but typical.

There were no sentences handed down, no pleas for leniency or clemency, no admonishments from the bench or complex legal arguments being parsed.

About a half-dozen participants were gathered before District Court Judge William F. Mazanec, who heads the county's drug court program — one of 23 adult drug courts and three juvenile drug courts across the state.

On this day, clients were giving the judge an update on their progress, treatment and sobriety.

One woman explained about how she kept up with her required support meetings, even while vacationing on a Maine beach. Another client discussed his progress finding a suitable place to live.

One man, who had successfully progressed far enough into the program to only be required to appear every other week, instead of weekly, got a round of applause from his fellow participants.

The Massachusetts Trial Court will launch a drug court program in Berkshire County on Thursday. Judge Thomas Estes will preside over the weekly sessions, which will be held in Central Berkshire District Court.

Drug court is an alternative to traditional criminal court with the goals of getting people with substance abuse issues clean, sober, safe and out of jail. The court will operate with a team including representatives from criminal court, the Probation Department, area treatment providers and others.

The court will accept participants from throughout the county; transportation to Pittsfield will be provided from north and south counties.

Drug court provides a model for rehabilitation beyond mere conviction and incarceration; a cycle that often repeats itself until a person overcomes their addiction.

"Let's face it, the punishment doesn't work. If it worked so well, we wouldn't be doing this," said Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of the Brien Center and attending psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center.

"We have the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world, even though we are the model of democracy in the world. So there's something dreadfully wrong with our model."

"It doesn't work and we're failing to address this epidemic and people are dying and families are ravaged by this and we need to treat people," Michaels said.

The judiciary

Participation in drug court is voluntary, but potential candidates are identified and assessed to determine if they have an addiction issue that could be curbed by completing the court's requirements.

Those findings are then brought to an assessment team, which decides whether the candidates are appropriate for the program.

The assessment usually begins after a potential candidate is arraigned; drug court is normally presented as a sentencing option if the defendant is willing to abide by its conditions.

"This is an effort to try to deal with these justice-involved individuals in a way that might change the trajectory of their life," said Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the trial court.

Carey addressed the notion, especially from those who have been victims of crimes perpetrated by addicts, that drug court participants should face incarceration and punishment.

In most cases, she said, mere punishment doesn't dissuade addicts from committing crimes.

"If we truly don't want this person to re-offend, if someone has an opioid addiction, they have to have treatment, " she said "It's not going to go away."

Carey also dismissed the notion drug court participants were being let off easy or catching a break by diverting into the program.

"If you think it's less burdensome for these folks, trust me, it's not," she said. "It's intensive supervision. Much more than they would get in jail."

That supervision includes counseling, appropriate treatment and weekly drug screenings, in addition to attending drug court sessions.

Attendance is every week at first and relaxes to every other week as a participant progresses through the program.

"In fact many people say, 'I don't want to go into that drug court; just let me serve my six months, and then I'm done; I'm over with; I'm out and I'm on the street.'"

"The theory of punishment is always that if we say we're going to punish you if you do this thing, it'll discourage you from doing it," said trial court Administrator Harry Spence. "The problem is, if you're a drug addict, if you're mentally ill, it has no impact whatsoever."

"The traditional theory of punishment doesn't work for these people," Spence said. "Unless you intervene and get to the root cause, it's a complete failure of the whole theory of criminal justice, because it has no impact on these folks."

Carey said a mark of whether the drug court is a success is if the rate of people returning to jail drops.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 75 percent of graduates remain arrest-free for at least two years after completing the program and drug courts can reduce crime up to 45 percent over other sentencing options.

Probation

Matthew Stracuzzi, chief probation officer for Central Berkshire District Court, described the phases which participants must complete to graduate.

In the first of five phases, there is an assessment period to see what kinds of treatment and programs might be most appropriate.

That's followed by daily intensive treatment, reporting each week to court and submitting to drug testing on a random, but weekly basis.

Participants also may be asked to submit written feedback to the judge about their experiences and progress while in the program. That phase can last up to 90 days, Stracuzzi said.

"It's designed to be therapeutic for the participant and a way for the judge and court to glean some insight on whether those early stages of treatment are having the desired effects," he said.

"The one thing we want to see from them is that they want to change their prior history; that they want to change their way of living," Stracuzzi said.

"Honesty is foremost," he said. "If they're not honest with themselves, if they're not honest with drug court, then they're not going to get through this."

The third phase allows participants to begin to develop their own plan to remain clean and sober.

"Now they have a say in their own sobriety," Stracuzzi said.

All of the phases involve daily Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In the fourth phase, participants keep up with their treatment and regularly meet with a probation officer assigned to their case and their attendance is relaxed to every other week and they must be in stable, substance-free housing, Stracuzzi said.

"It's all well and good to change their lifestyle," he said, "but if you're not changing some of the problems that they're having, where they're living, who they're hanging with, it's not going to work."

Those who reach the fifth phase maintain their sobriety and keep working to find employment or education opportunities along with continuing with their treatment regimen.

A drug court participant could be in the program for up to 18 months before graduation, which involves completing all five phases and remaining drug-free for one year.

"It's only going to benefit, not only the defendant, but our community because they're not going to be out committing new crimes," Stracuzzi said. "Recidivism is what we want to lower. And this is one way to do that."

"It's all about keeping these people away from the way they were living, to change their lives," he said.

Treatment

"We're really excited that drug court is happening in Berkshire County," Michaels said.

Michaels said the Brien Center will assign one of its clinicians who specializes in substance use disorders.

That clinician will coordinate with other members of the team and drug court participants to find the most appropriate route for those participants.

Those routes vary, depending on the individual, and could include individual or group therapy, a structured day program or an evening program.

"For people who are really struggling, maybe they're homeless, we also have residential programs," Michaels said.

"All of these programs will be connected to drug court and probation so that we're all communicating for the best interests of the person we're serving," she said. "That's the goal."

Michaels said while the Brien Center will likely be the primary treatment provider, they are not the only one in the county.

"There's a wonderful methadone treatment program, Spectrum ... There are also recovery homes that people may be appropriate for, and there are 12-step programs that are wonderful and essential for many people in their recovery," she said.

"There are other programs that have pieces of the treatment that we provide, and someone may choose to do that — and as long as probation supports that, that may happen."

Michaels touted the value of treatment over incarceration, including the financial benefits.

"For every dollar that we spend treating a substance use disorder we prevent society having to spend $10 dealing with the consequences of active substance use," she said. "So there's a dramatic savings when we invest in treatment instead of punishment."

"We just saw a mother who is back home with her children in recovery... and she's not using drugs and she's not engaging in illegal activities and that makes a lot more sense than putting her in jail because she's addicted to drugs."

Michaels described addiction as a chronic disease.

"The reality is, substance use disorders are treatable," she said, "and most people will have some form of recovery, but we want to make access as easy as possible."

She also disputed the stigma that addiction itself is a choice.

"It's very true, the first time you pick up a drug, it's your choice. The second time, maybe it's your choice. These drugs are so remarkably addictive, they really hijack your brain so it doesn't take long before you don't have a choice, it's such an overwhelming compulsion that ... it becomes their life. To avoid going through withdrawal to feel less bad to get the drugs, to engage in those behaviors.

"At some point, you lose the choice. The choice is when you're 12 and you pick up your first drink or you try something else, and if you're genetically predisposed, it progresses and you lose that choice. Or you end up using a substance that is so addictive that after a week, you don't have a choice.

"If you're a person hearing about this and thinking, 'Well, they should be punished,' the reality is that most people who have a substance use disorder are committing illegal acts that are not violent, they're found with drugs that are illegal. My feeling is we need to give them the opportunity to enter into treatment so they can stop that behavior."

"It takes our whole community to make it happen," she said.

Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.


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