(Host) Vermont has seen an explosion in heroin use and drug related crimes and the courts and jails have been reeling with the impact. A new federally funded drug court opens on Tuesday in Rutland that may help to address the problem. The new court will utilize one of the existing courtrooms in Rutland’s district courthouse every Tuesday.
As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, proponents believe the new program will help reduce the prison population, curb recidivism and save taxpayers millions.
(Keck) Rutland District Court Judge Nancy Corsones says five years ago there was no need for a drug court and Vermont was one of the few states without one. Today, she says things are different.
(Corsones) “The unbelievable level of crime in terms of property damage and theft and embezzlement and – you know, stealing an ATM card from your grandmother and emptying out her bank account because you need to buy some heroine to feed your habit and you’re 17 years old. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before.”
(Keck) Judge Corsones says a growing number of the defendants in her courtroom are young, nonviolent offenders who need treatment for their drug habits not jail. She recalls a heroin addict she recently saw in court as a troubling example.
(Corsones) “She didn’t have any place to go, she had three children and she had a mom who was unable to provide support. And the only action appeared to be jail. And I said this is not law, this is social work, to plan what’s going to happen with those kids. If mom’s going to be locked up, what sort of treatment will be available to her? It’s not law, it is social work. Am I comfortable with it? That’s my job to adequately respond to the issues that come through the door.”
(Keck) But she says the traditional court system isn’t equipped for such cases.
(Corsones) “The way we had dealt with things is somebody is brought in two months after the alleged offense. A year later, maybe, they’ve taken responsibility for a plea. They see a probation officer once a month. Tell me that’s a good way to address a substance abuse issue. It’s not. So, yeah, do you see repeat offenders? All the time.”
(Keck) So, Corsones and others in the state criminal justice system have been working to create a better way – one specifically aimed at helping nonviolent offenders with addiction problems.
(Corsones) “The idea is to get folks when they’re in their crisis stage. The arrest is, for the vast majority of people, hitting bottom.”
(Keck) And that’s when Rutland’s drug court will go into action. Within a week of the arrest, the defendant appears in drug court and decides whether or not to apply. Anyone with a history of selling drugs is disqualified and younger offenders will get priority over older ones. Defendants are charged $300 to take part and any insurance or Medicaid benefits will be used to help defray costs. Mental health and substance abuse professionals will assess participants within two to three weeks and treatment begins almost immediately. To complete the program participants must remain drug free. They must attend regular therapy sessions, join support groups and report to drug court once a week. Courtney Gandy is Rutland County’s Drug Court Coordinator.
(Gandy) “And what the participant doesn’t really know is that the judge has a list of all the participant has done all week – results of their drug screens, have they attended counseling and what’s their attitude been at counseling? And should the participants try to change their story and make it sound like things are going better than they seem, the judge will see this and say, Well, that’s not what I’ve heard and can you tell me a bit more of what’s going on. And if things are going great then the judge says, All right you’re doing great, and calls the next person.”
(Keck) Most participants will also have work or community service requirements – they may need to pay child support or restitution for their crimes, or work to complete their education. Gandy says supervision is key and relapses will be dealt with promptly. The program isn’t easy she says, and most participants will take at least a year to complete it.
For those who do finish, however, the reward is sweet: their criminal record is erased. Gandy says that while the program is more labor intensive for the court, the long-term savings when compared to jail are huge.
(Gandy) “Typical drug courts allow $2,400 to $2,700 per participant to go through the entire program. It costs $27,000 to incarcerate somebody for one year. So, if we’re looking at someone coming through drug court and making a positive contribution to society, I think we’re making out pretty well if we can make drug court work.”
(Keck) And studies show they do work. New York’s drug courts reduced recidivism by 32 percent.
(Caroline Cooper) “Recidivism is definitely reduced. But there’s also more to look at.”
(Keck) Caroline Cooper is associate director of the Justice Programs Office at American University – the main clearinghouse for drug court research. Every program is different she says, so it’s difficult to quantify success rates. But she says because offenders are so closely supervised, public safety is better. And families benefit.
(Cooper) “Children aren’t exposed to drug use. They’re paying their child support, reestablishing visitation, a whole slew of public health benefits. They’re screened for HIV and TB and other contagious diseases. So there’s a tremendous benefit to the community, apart from just the recidivism rate.”
(Keck) But these same communities have to be willing and able to offer the necessary services. Many early skeptics of Rutland’s drug court were worried that Rutland didn’t have the social services needed for such a program.
(Jennifer Fauntleroy) “Rutland is trying very hard to develop the services that would support a growing drug court.”
(Keck) Dr. Jennifer Fauntleroy is medical director of psychiatric services at Rutland Regional Medical Center. She says Rutland has an excellent intensive outpatient program. But she says the community still does not have a methadone clinic and she worries about waiting lists for some services. Despite that, she’s optimistic.
(Fauntleroy) “It’s going to identify very clearly for everybody what the gaps are. It’s going to force us to take action. When Judge Corsones or somebody else orders someone to get a certain type of treatment after proper consultation about what would be the appropriate treatment, and that treatment is not available anywhere closer than Burlington. That’s really powerful. The fact that we are not looking after our own citizens, our own kids, when we have to send them off who knows where to get treatment.”
(Keck) Fauntleroy would like to see the drug court lead to more coordination between corrections and mental health personnel – something she says is greatly needed. The courts will have to coordinate with a wide variety of services in the community, says Judge Nancy Corsones. Besides addiction, she says there may be issues with transportation, abuse, childcare and housing. So she says drug court personnel have been reaching out to Rutland area housing authorities, welfare offices and educational institutions.
(Corsones) “It’s a natural fit but we’ve all been so deep in our own trenches dealing with our own crisis that we haven’t been able to pop our head up to say, Oh, you’re over there, can we work with you? Now we have those partnerships, now we have those models.”
(Keck) And if things go well, they’re models that can be expanded and adapted to other parts of the state. Rutland’s drug court has received over $600,000 in federal and state funding. The program is budgeted for 35 participants this year with plans to expand to 60 by 2006.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.