Indiana, PA - Indiana County

A Sobering Story: Drug court offers a second chance

by on May 11, 2014 1:59 AM

On a recent Thursday at the Indiana County Court House, District Attorney Patrick Dougherty gathered in a courtroom with fellow members of the county’s drug treatment court team and discussed the week’s progress of several offenders in the program.

There was no talk of fines and sentence lengths, just words of encouragement, even if tough.

One man was having difficulty holding a job, so to keep moving in the right direction, it was recommended that he bring five copies of completed job applications with him to his weekly court sessions.

“You know I get on your rear end; obviously I do it for a reason — I want you to succeed,” Dougherty told him. “There’s something about you that makes me want to kick you in the ass sometimes.

“I need you to step it up, get a job, get it done so (the rest of the team) can get off my back for being so mean to you,” he joked.

In another case, the team learned a defendant was late to a recent group meeting due to work and having to care for his child. Even though he had called to say he was going to be late, Dougherty warned him: “That sends up a red flag. Things like that make us concerned.”

“You’re doing well,” Dougherty told him. “We don’t want to see you get so frustrated that you go back to a bad place.”

The young man told Dougherty he was going to start looking for a new job with hours that work better for him because his recovery comes first.

“This program is to set you up for life,” Dougherty said. “Get a good work history, get a good recommendation and move forward.”

This is the weekly routine for this six-member team of the treatment court. For the people who enter the program, it’s a life-saving second chance.

And for the drug treatment court team, it’s an opportunity to help the addicted overcome their disease and once again become productive members of society.

The court is an alternative sentencing program intended to steer certain nonviolent defendants — those whose drug or alcohol abuse is at the root of their criminal activity — into recovery instead of into a prison cell. It’s a rigorous program, and those who are admitted subject themselves to extensive monitoring and rehabilitation.

Even requests for activities or visits to see a friend or family member are at the sole discretion of the team because it could be a trigger for the offender to relapse.

For example, one participant requested to visit his grandmother and to go to a gym. Dougherty told him that the team’s probation officer would follow up with him about visiting his grandmother, but denied the gym request because the client is on house arrest.

“As long as you put forth a great effort, we’ll help you” move off house arrest, Dougherty said.

The court is overseen by a six-member team made up of Indiana County President Judge William Martin; Dougherty; Chief Probation Officer Michael Hodak; Lisa Prebish, a case manager with the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission; Amanda Yurky, a probation officer; and criminal defense attorney Thomas G. Johnson. Barb Elkin, a licensed professional counselor at The Open Door, also serves on the team in an advisory capacity.The court is one of 31 in Pennsylvania. Indiana County created its treatment court in January 2007 as a way to deal with a growing number of drug-related cases.

Martin said he likes the program and continues to be involved because he gets tired of “sending people to prison and we’re just warehousing them and there’s no treatment. And when they do get out, they’re going to re-offend in a continuous cycle,” he said.

“In treatment court, we get to break that cycle and don’t have to have them come back time and time again,” he said. “They’re able to learn how to address their addiction and live drug-free.”

It’s a voluntary program, and when a defendant applies for admission, he or she is interviewed, given a drug and alcohol assessment, and eventually appears before the drug court team. The team votes on whether to accept the defendant. At least four members must vote in favor of accepting a defendant. Dougherty said the team considers, among other things, the defendant’s age, the crime he or she committed, any previous attempts at treatment and their drug of choice. Most who enter the program — about 60 percent — have been abusing heroin or some other opiate. Defendants also are commonly using marijuana, alcohol and crack cocaine.Upon entering the program, defendants essentially give up control of their lives and surrender themselves to intensive monitoring and oversight by way of house arrest, home visits and frequent random drug testing. Defendants also have to seek approval on where they can work and live, Dougherty said.

The program usually begins with a 30- to 90-day stay in a residential treatment facility, depending on an addict’s level of need, Dougherty said. From there, the defendant will “step down” to a halfway house for anywhere from three to six months. Afterward, the defendant returns home and is placed on house arrest, their movements electronically monitored usually for 60 to 90 days. They may also have to wear an electronic bracelet that can detect whether they have been drinking.

Offenders are given “windows” during their house arrest to attend out-patient treatment at The Open Door and support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Additionally, participants meet regularly with their case manager and probation officer.

“As they earn their freedom back, as they elevate through the program, some of our restrictions fall away,” Dougherty said.

Every Thursday the team meets to hear reports from Prebish and Yurky on the progress of each defendant in the program. And the team makes decisions related to the defendant as a whole.

“That’s the part I like about it — everyone’s in the room and has a say, and no one’s vote outweighs anyone else’s,” Martin said.

“We’ve taken some votes where I’ve been on the losing end,” he said.

Defendants in the program must follow a strict set of rules, and if someone slips up by, say, failing a drug test, the team must determine what sanctions will be imposed. Those can range from sending the individual back to a treatment program, some time in jail, or expulsion from the program, Dougherty said. People who are expelled are sentenced as they would have been had they not entered the program.

The number of participants in the program at any given time varies — as some graduate, others are admitted, Dougherty said.

Martin said the program has had as many as 18 participants in it at one time and as few as seven or eight. Right now, there are 10 or 11 people in drug treatment court, Martin said.

Dougherty said that for a while, the numbers seemed to be down a little bit.

“People in the jail were saying, ‘Don’t do that program; it’s too hard. Just go to jail and do your time.’ But the numbers have turned around, and I think we’re seeing more applications over the last six months than we’ve seen in a while,” he said.

Drug treatment court, with its treatment-intensive focus and many requirements, isn’t for everyone, and some, in fact, choose to serve their sentence instead of entering the program.

Dougherty lauds what the program has done for its graduates.

“The people that graduate from our program are employed, paying taxes. They are clean, and they now have some job skills. And they’re building positive work histories,” he said, emphasizing that getting a job is one of the program’s requirements.

In its time, roughly 100 people have participated in the program, Martin said. Thirty-two have successfully completed it, reclaiming themselves from the destructive grip addiction held on their lives.

Of the ones who have graduated, Martin said, quite a few are now gainfully employed. There’s at least one who is close to graduating from college. And others have spent years being sober and are leading good lives and holding jobs in trades such as electricians, painters and carpenters.

Martin said the people in program have been involved with the criminal justice system for extended periods of time, so it’s rewarding to see them turn their lives around.

“You see who the real person is, not the addict or the person they were when they were on drugs,” Martin said.

As rewarding as it is to see the change in an offender from beginning to end, those involved in the program aren’t the only ones who benefit. Society does, too.

“Although (the defendants) are being serviced by a probation officer and other people being paid by tax dollars, (the defendants) are not in jail, which is a significant savings in terms of jail time,” Martin said.

“When they complete the program, they’re employable, they pay their taxes and they’re no longer addicted to drugs or alcohol. You don’t get the derivative crimes that come from that, the retail theft, access device fraud (and the like),” he added.

“It’s a significant savings to everybody,” Martin said. “Some of these people wouldn’t only just be in county jail, they’d be looking at state sentences, so it would be an extended period of incarceration at the state level. So there are substantial savings. Our graduates are taxpaying citizens back on the tax rolls.”Between the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, 2013, and March 31, treatment court spared defendants from a cumulative 1,703 days of incarceration, according to Yurky, saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Dougherty said it costs the county $55 a day to incarcerate someone in the county jail.

But really though, the point of the program is to do what’s best for people suffering from a disease, officials say.

“Ultimately, the goal of the program is for defendants to regain control of their lives” and not letting the addiction control their lives, Dougherty said.

“We’re giving them coping skills so they don’t relapse — finding friends, social networks either through the Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous community, finding sober supports for these people,” he said.

And Martin said that not only does the program help addicts, but the people who are close to them as well.

“The person we start with is not the person we finish with,” he said. “The common comment that you hear all the time from … family, friends is, ‘I’ve got my son back.’ ‘I’ve got my daughter back.’ ‘I’ve got my brother back.’”



Heather Blake is the wire editor and an assistant web editor for The Indiana Gazette. She covers courts, Saltsburg and Homer City borough councils and Penns Manor and United school districts, in addition to writing feature articles. She can be reached at hblake@indianagazette.net.
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