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On a recent afternoon, a defendant stood before Judge Louis J. Presenza for her monthly status hearing in the Philadelphia Treatment Court program. Months earlier in this same courtroom, the woman had waived the right to trial and enrolled in a voluntary program that would help her to overcome her addiction. If the program is successful, her record will be rendered as clean as her bloodstream — all charges dismissed. However, on this day the report of her progress was not a good one. The defendant had tested positive for cocaine use, and, in addition. she had skipped several group-therapy sessions. “What do you have to say for yourself, ma’am?” the judge asked, attempting, as is customary, to elicit an explanation for the relapse. But in the face of incontrovertible evidence against her, the defendant repeatedly denied the allegations, shaking her head in the negative throughout the questioning process. The volume of the judge’s voice mounted with his anger. Already amplified by a microphone, his questions now reverberated throughout the courtroom. “Do you expect me to believe that somebody forced it down your throat?” Judge Presenza asked her with obvious disbelief. “Or did they inject it into you against your will?” The occupants of the jury box paid rapt attention to the exchange, but not because they would be called on to decide this individual’s guilt or innocence. They were present because they were relatively new to the program and had been sanctioned to observe and learn from the day’s proceedings. Their fate, like the woman’s standing before the bench, rested exclusively in the hands of the judge. The woman being questioned by Presenza was not the first on this day to have a relapse on record, but she was the first and only participant to deny accountability. Earlier, the judge had sanctioned a participant to write an essay about what recovery meant to her. Another had been referred to a structured residential treatment program. A third would repeat addiction assessment after admitting he had initially reported a lesser quantity of drug consumption than he had actually been using. His level of treatment would then be adjusted accordingly. Few were surprised when the judge ordered an armed Philadelphia police officer to take the defendant immediately into custody where she would serve a week in jail. This type of “wake-up call” is not intended to be punitive, but to break the protective shell of denial that keeps addicts hooked even while they claim to be invested in their recovery. Many who have completed the program admit that this hurdle often proves to be the most difficult to overcome and rarely happens without being forced to face the consequences of their actions. “Most of them call me and thank me after their week is over,” Presenza said afterward. For the past three years, the drug court movement in Pennsylvania has experienced steady growth and increasing interest from many jurisdictions searching for solutions to clogged dockets and overcrowded prisons. In April 1997, the Philadelphia Treatment Court was the first in Pennsylvania to open its doors, and by the end of the year, Chester and York counties had also opened drug courts. There are now seven operating drug courts in Pennsylvania and two in the planning stages, one of those being Delaware County. Current programs are showing signs of success. Among Philadelphia Treatment Court graduates, 6 percent have been re-arrested with a resulting 3 percent reconviction rate. In Chester County, the rate of re-arrest was 5 percent, and their retention rate in the program was slightly above the national average of 70 percent. Nearly 72 percent of participants stayed enrolled or have successfully graduated. That number is double the retention rate for traditional drug-rehab programs. Still, the drug court programs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reached a critical point, as program advocates seek permanent commitments and long-term funding for the programs. In September, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency sponsored a second annual workshop in State College, Pa. During that meeting, drug court personnel from around the state formed the Pennsylvania Association of Drug Court Professionals to promote collaboration among the individual courts and to further their common objectives. “One of our goals is to spread the gospel and to inform the public what drug courts are and what successes we’ve achieved both statewide and nationally,” Presenza said. In addition to his role as president judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, Presenza was unanimously elected president of the PADCP at the recent workshop. “We also want to share information and resources and to encourage others to plan and implement drug courts.” A NATIONAL TREND Eleven years ago, Janet Reno, then district attorney of Dade County, Fla., founded the first drug court in Miami. Although it was considered controversial at the time, more than 20 other jurisdictions followed suit in the next two years. This created the impetus for a national trend; all 50 states currently have at least one drug court, and half have 25 or more. Despite the U.S. government’s “War Against Drugs,” substance abuse continues to be a problem both nationally and locally. The number of prison inmates serving time for drug-related offenses has risen by more than 1,000 percent since 1980, while the federal drug-control budget has skyrocketed from $1.53 billion to $17.77 billion. Philadelphia experienced a 141 percent increase in drug arrests in the last decade, while the Court of Common Pleas saw a 1,526 percent increase in drug case dispositions. Drug court programs provide an alternative to prosecution for nonviolent drug offenders. And the savings in terms of costs are significant, supporters point out. Incarceration of drug-using offenders costs a minimum of $25,000 per year – and as much as $50,000. In comparison, the most comprehensive drug court system costs an average of $3,000 annually for each offender. Instead of prosecution and incarceration, the goal of drug courts is to treat the underlying addiction that can compel drug users to commit theft or sell drugs to support their addiction. Prosecutors and public defenders assume a collaborative rather than an adversarial role, and they individualize treatment plans to each defendant under close supervision of the drug-court judge. In Philadelphia, treatment plans may include anything from attending drug treatment and group therapy to getting job training and completing a GED. Participants — whose identities are not disclosed to the public — are strictly supervised and required to report to the judge regularly. Clients are also assigned case managers who assist them to respond more appropriately to situations that cause them to “use.” Participants remain on the program for a minimum of a year. Each defendant must remain drug-free during four phases of increasing length, ranging from 30 to 120 days. Failure to do so results in termination from the program — and they serve the sentence for the offense for which they were initially arrested. Lengths of treatment vary from state to state and county to county. But each drug court program in the country must adhere to 10 requirements to be eligible for federal funding through the U.S. Department of Justice. In New Jersey, the judiciary recently gave its support to expanding drug courts to encompass all 21 counties in that state. In May, the Conference of Criminal Presiding Judges issued a report favoring the expansion. However, it is unclear how the Legislature will respond to its recommendation. Earlier this year, the Administrative Office of the Courts began a study of a possible statewide system, which the office is due to issue later this fall; the study is to include a detailed section on costs and funding. Funding has become an issue of increasing concern now that the programs are moving out of the pilot stage. Virtually all drug courts have existed on grants either in part, or entirely, at some stage of their operation. The U.S. Department of Justice has made implementation and enhancement grants to local drug courts, provided they operate within the 10 standards laid out by the NADCP and make matching funds available. For the most part, federal grants are available only during the first two years of a court’s operation, regardless of the success of the program. MAKING THE CASE Early results indicate that treatment programs successfully break the cycle of addiction and recidivism. According to a report prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs called, “Looking at a Decade of Drug Courts,” nearly half of all defendants convicted of a felony drug offense will recidivate within two to three years, and many will escalate to committing violent crimes as their addictions worsen. Despite the daunting statistics, some legislators have been reluctant to support the drug court programs. Chester County Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody said the county commissioners in Chester County at first declined to match funds required to receive a Justice Department implementation grant. However, when the public defender, prosecutor, judge and other court personnel agreed to volunteer their time without financial compensation, the DOJ considered the combined manpower to be “in-kind contributions.” The court opened, and the commissioners have since come on board. “There are still those who believe that anybody involved with drugs should be in jail,” Cody said. The judge said she has invited several legislators to witness drug court in action, after which they expressed enthusiasm for the program. “After all,” she said, “this is a new way of treating a serious problem.” Both Presenza and Cody conceded that until long-term statistics become available, it is unlikely that permanent funding will be granted. Currently, only 20 states have dedicated state funding. Others have procured funds from diverse sources to keep drug courts in operation. These include proceeds from drug asset forfeiture, tobacco settlement funds, sales tax surcharges, contributions from private foundations and revenues from fines, to name only a few. “We have to be creative in the way we deal with this issue,” Presenza said. “Treatment Court is a philosophy, and once you believe in a philosophy, you find a way to adopt and implement it.”

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