Being arrested for drug or alcohol charges, whether felony or misdemeanor, can often cause a great deal of trouble for a person and their future, especially if they are convicted. For citizens of Broome County, New York, a new option has been created. The Drug Treatment Court will allow those who are charged with felony or misdemeanor crimes that are tied to drug or alcohol use to receive lesser convictions upon successful completion. On top of that, participants have their identities sealed.
One recent graduate from Chenango Forks said he always made decent grades in high school. But after graduation, a few wrongs choices led to a life of opiate and alcohol addiction. "The drugs had me cooked like a caught fish," he said. "Drug Court has helped give me the start of regaining everything I lost." Other graduates said the same thing – the program gave them their real second chance.
Broome County District Attorney Stephen Cornwell outlined the revised policy the county has put in place. He pointed out that those who complete the program that prove they are a low public safety risk will receive successful treatment as well as the reward of a less-serious record – if they end up with one at all!
According to Cornwell, each case will be reviewed on an individual basis. A defendant will be required to plead guilty up front. Successful completion of the program, though, will see the misdemeanor end up being dismissed and a felony reduced to a lesser felony, a misdemeanor, or even dismissed as well. It is important to note, however, that there are two exceptions to the rule: registered sex offenders and drug dealers or violent criminal defendants will not qualify.
However, Cornwell continued, saying that "In some cases, I think we need to have a misdemeanor on their record, but they won't be burdened by a felony record that prevents them from being the most productive member of society they can be. If they pay restitution and complete treatment, they can earn their way back ... and that is a huge incentive."
The Drug Court has been active since 2002 and has served as an alternative to jail or prison for those suffering from drug addiction. The program takes one to two years. To be admitted to the program, the person needs to be referred to the court by their defense attorney. The district attorney will review the person's criminal record and current charges to make sure they qualify. If they do, the state attorney will approve or deny the request within three days. Approval means the person will have to sign a contract to enroll in Drug Court, outlining the result of a successful completion and the punishments for failure.
Currently, there are more than 50 open cases. The charges include burglary, forged instruments, and larceny charges, all charges that relate to a drug addiction. The presiding judge of Drug Court, Judge William Pelella, said that the goal of the court is to break "the vicious cycle of addiction."
Judge Pelella stated that "We try to treat the entire person from someone who is committing crimes, who is a drain on our community, to someone who's now productive and has a strong foundation for recovery." The way to do this is through the Drug Court treatment program's three-phase process.
First, there are weekly court appearances along with a number of different restrictions, like banning visiting locations where alcohol is served, while also undergoing treatment. Once that is completed, the second phase involves more freedom but requires that the person complete a community service project. Making it through that, the third phase involves almost complete freedom along with opportunities to pursue educational and career opportunities and improvement programs.
In order to participate, make sure you ask your attorney if you qualify. If you like what the court is doing, make sure you are a registered voter in New York and then let your elected officials know what you think. The Broome County Legislature and Broome County Executive should know you support real criminal justice reform, like the Drug Court. The Broome County District Attorney should hear that they should ensure more defendants are given the chance to enter the program. New York State Senators and Assemblymen should be convinced to create a statewide program that improves upon the existing Broome County program. The Governor's Office needs to be convinced to get the lawmakers moving. New York's Federal representatives in the US House of Representatives and US Senate should also hear about what is going on back home.