Oswego County Drug Treatment Court

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A Day at Drug Court

OSWEGO--Several Oswego County Drug Treatment Court participants, treatment counselors, sheriff's deputies and members of the Oswego County District Attorney's office sit anxiously waiting for County Court Judge James McCarthy to begin interviewing his first Drug Court participant of the day.

The first defendant stands in front of the judge.

"Says here you started the "Living Sober" group. What do you think about that? Went to three meetings? Good. Vocational education counseling? Do anything with that? Good. Worked on stress and anxiety? How's that going?"

The Oswego County Drug Treatment Court program was initiated last August and gives non-violent drug offenders a chance to participate in an intense treatment and rehabilitation program supervised by Judge McCarthy. If participants complete the program under the terms of their contract, they may have their criminal charges reduced or dismissed.

"So far, I believe this is a very tough, yet effective program for participants," said David Guyer, Oswego County Drug Treatment Court program coordinator. "Trying to stay clean, going to treatment and being accountable for actions can be difficult, but for people who really want to change their lives, this program will be a positive experience."

In order to be eligible, the offender must have been charged with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, or have a violation of probation, have no prior convictions for a violent offense, and have a substance abuse problem. Participants undergo an evaluation and treatment program that lasts at least a year and are randomly tested for drugs. They also attend outpatient treatment at a substance abuse treatment agency three to five times a week, and attend self-help and group therapy meetings three to five times a week. In addition to meeting all eligibility requirements, District Attorney Dennis Hawthorne Sr. and Judge McCarthy must approve of the offender's participation in the program.

The Drug Treatment Court program is funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and by the New York State Unified Court System. Representatives of probation, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment agencies, and the court system serve on a steering committee that manages the program.

Oswego County was the first county-wide drug treatment court in upstate New York. Previously, drug treatment courts existed only city-wide in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Ithaca. According to Guyer, approximately 30 other drug treatment court programs are now operational or being developed statewide.

"Been drinking right along, haven't you? You lied. Your contract says if you drink, there are consequences."

The second defendant in court is placed in handcuffs and taken to jail for violating the terms of his Drug Treatment Court contract.

Upon admittance to the program, defendants must sign a contract stating that they will comply with the conditions of the program, some of which include keeping all appointments with treatment providers and following counselor recommendations, undergoing random drug testing, discussing drug use or relapse with providers, and following the instructions of the Drug Treatment Court Judge.

According to Guyer, relapse is common in a drug treatment program. Sanctions are a way to keep participants on the path to program completion.

"Consequences for breaking the rules of the contract can range from a verbal reprimand from the Judge, to community service or increased drug testing, jail time and eventually, termination from the program," Guyer explained. "Those sanctions become quite a deterrent for participants."

Drug Treatment Court participant "Susan" (the defendant's name has been changed to protect her identity) knows all too well about consequences. Susan, a Scriba resident, was arrested for drug possession about a year ago after being in recovery from a crack cocaine addiction for three years. She received a jail sentence and three years of probation as a result.

"My life was chaotic. I was spending $1,000 per week on crack and I knew I was going to have to face a pretty big consequence sooner or later," she said. "When I was sitting in jail, I made up my mind that I wanted to be clean. It was only then that I knew I could go through the program and actually be successful."

"Susan" said she has been in recovery for one year and is scheduled to graduate from the Drug Treatment Court program in August. She said she will continue an outpatient treatment program and attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis.

"The program made me realize that I don't need drugs because I now have some of the tools I needed to stay clean. Now I'm making choices instead of taking drugs," she said.

"I'd really like to go back to school for a career in computers and make up some of the time I lost with my kids and grandkids."

"I'm trying to help you from spending two to four in prison. Get the message?"

The third and fourth defendants are released from jail, reinstated into the program, and given stern warnings by Judge McCarthy.

According to Guyer, seven people have been terminated from the program so far.

"We don't like terminating people from the program, but we need to address a serious drug problem in an effective way so we can help those who really want to change their lives and become productive members of the community," Guyer said.

The Oswego County Drug Task Force made 493 drug-related arrests in Oswego County last year. The task force executed 37 search warrants and seized $45,000 in cash. The street value of the drugs seized by law enforcement officials last year in Oswego County is $1.1 to $1.2 million.

"It's either you complete the program and your charges will be reduced or dropped, or you violate the contract terms and you're looking at hard jail time," Guyer said.

According to Guyer, jail time for a drug related offense can range from one to six years in prison. If a participant is terminated from the program, the original plea remains in effect, and the previously agreed upon sentence is imposed.

Sanctions are not the only thing handed down as a response to participant behavior, however. Good behavior and progress in the program are recognized with congratulations and small rewards during court proceedings.

"Hi ma'am, this is Judge McCarthy. Has your son been out looking for work? Great. When he gets a job, charge him rent, OK?"

After being asked by Judge McCarthy if he violated curfew, and was actively looking for a job, the last defendant's bluff is called by the Judge. Literally. Judge McCarthy makes a cell phone call to the defendant's mother at home.

"I'll find a job, Judge," the defendant says.

"Part of the goal of the Drug Treatment Court program is to combat a high recidivism rate among drug offenders and return them to the community as productive citizens. We try to achieve this by breaking the cycle of drug dependency while they're in the program," said Dennis Hawthorne, Oswego County District Attorney and a member of the program's management committee.

"One of the goals in implementing this program was to reduce drug abuse and drug-related crime in Oswego County," said Legislator Carl Anson, 2nd District, Altmar, Chairman of the Oswego County Legislature's Public Safety Committee. "I commend the Drug Treatment Court management team for their commitment to increasing public safety and improving the quality of life in our community."

In addition to Legislator Anson, other members of the Public Safety Committee include Michael Kunzwiler, 18th District, Oswego; Douglas Malone, 20th District, Oswego; Carolyn Rush, 13th District, New Haven; Robert Simmons, 21st District, Hannibal; Morris Sorbello, 23rd District, Granby; and Don Wahrendorf, 19th District, Minetto.

Other members of the Drug Treatment Court management committee include Judge McCarthy; Hawthorne; Guyer; Thomas Sarchioto, Probation Director; Deborah Bills, director, County of Oswego Council on Alcoholism and Addictions; John Kaminski, Williamstown Town Justice; Oswego Police Chief Kathleen MacPherson; Barbara Mentry, Deputy Probation Director; Jeanne Unger, executive director of Farnham, Inc.; and Joseph Rodak, attorney.

For more information call Guyer at 349-3448 or 1-800-596-3200, ext. 3448.

Questions about Oswego County Drug Treatment Court?