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June is traditionally the season for graduations, and the 15 people who gathered yesterday in the ceremonial courtroom of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center had the additional honor of being the largest group to date to make it through a particularly challenging program. The honorees, representing a variety of ethnic, age, gender and socioeconomic groups, had successfully completed a rigorous four-phase program to become the 24th graduating class of the Philadelphia Treatment Court. Commonly referred to as drug courts, such programs provide an alternative to prosecution for nonviolent drug offenders. Rather than prosecution and incarceration, drug courts attempt to treat the underlying addiction that can compel drug users to become drug dealers. “This court is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania,” Judge Louis J. Presenza said. In addition to his role as president judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court Division, Presenza presides over the day-to-day operation of the treatment court and was instrumental in implementing it. “We’ve shifted the focus from punishment to rehabilitation.” The movement away from traditional corrections policies toward an innovative, multi-agency approach began in the late 1980s in response to the explosion of drug-related cases resulting from the “War Against Drugs.” In 1989, an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge set the first drug court in motion in Miami through the efforts of Janet Reno. Although the court was considered controversial at the time, more than 20 jurisdictions followed suit in the ensuing two years; there are now more than 500 in the nation. Recently, the Philadelphia Treatment Court was recognized as a proven success by the United States Department of Justice, the Drug Court Program Office and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Last week, during their seventh annual conference in San Francisco, the NADCP named the Philadelphia court as a mentor court in acknowledgment of its successful track record. Of the 500 operating drug courts and 200 in the planning and early development stage, only 25 are promoted as educational models. As recently as yesterday, a delegation from the Bermuda Drug Court arrived in Philadelphia to observe and study the Philadelphia program. Also attending yesterday’s graduation ceremony were local law enforcement dignitaries, such as Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and Police Commissioner John Timoney, as well as 76ers president Pat Croce, who was invited as a special guest speaker. Croce concluded his motivational talk with a “team huddle” and an offer to the graduates to be his guests in the club box at the First Union Center next season. In addition to receiving a diploma certifying their accomplishment, the graduates earned the dismissal of criminal charges in their cases by Presenza. Each graduate has had felony drug possession charges discharged with prejudice, and their records will be entirely expunged if they complete an additional drug-free, arrest-free year. “Treating the addiction is the least challenging problem in the long run,” Judge Presenza said. “We try to deal with all the underlying issues people bring with them, such as educational, housing, vocational and psychiatric problems. In some ways, this [graduation] is just the beginning.” The services provided are funded in part by a local law-enforcement block grant through the police department and mayor’s office, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and Office and the Coordinating Office for Drug and Alcohol Abuse Program through the Behavioral Health System of Philadelphia. At the federal level, funding is granted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The treatment court is a collaborative effort between the municipal and common pleas courts, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Health, the city’s police and prison departments, and a variety of social-service agencies. The law-enforcement agencies evaluate each candidate’s criminal record to determine eligibility for the program. “From a prosecution standpoint it’s a win-win situation,” said Stacey Conroy, an assistant district attorney who only recently transferred to treatment court from the trial division. “Drug use is becoming more pervasive, and treatment court is a good way to help not only the offender, but the community also.” Defendants plead nolo contendere to the drug charges against them and voluntarily enter the program, which provides drug treatment, counseling and, if necessary, work on obtaining a GED and acquiring job skills. The length of the program varies — the minimum term is one year, and the maximum is determined by the length of the prison sentence each defendant would have received if he or she had been found guilty. There are only two options open to candidates once they enter the program — graduation or termination. The consequence for termination, whether voluntary or not, is jail. Each defendant must remain drug-free during four phases of increasing length, ranging from 30 to 120 days. Unlike traditional probationary programs in which a single violation results in parole being revoked, relapse is expected and dealt with by a graduated series of sanctions beginning with writing a 200-word essay and, just prior to termination, spending a two- to 10-day stretch in jail. “One of the reasons the program has been so successful is because of Judge Presenza’s demeanor,” said George Mosee, deputy district attorney of the narcotics division. “He can appear stern or lenient when appropriate and he recognizes when he needs to reward and when to sanction.” Since April 1997, 185 candidates have successfully completed the program, while 27 have terminated participation. There are currently 300 participants enrolled. The program got off to a slow start, however, in spite of a 16-month planning phase during which co-founders examined and mapped every aspect of the program from coordination of services to anticipating appropriate client load for case managers. “We had one client for about three months,” Mosee said. “It was one thing for the prosecutors to say that this was a good program but another thing for the defense attorneys to believe it.” Defense attorneys have become believers, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia had a hand in the planning of the Philadelphia Treatment Court program, which adopted features of several other programs and created some unique to Philadelphia and the target client base. The initial planning team, led by Presenza, observed courts in Miami, New York, Baltimore and other cities. Mary DeFusco, director of training and recruitment at the Defender Association, said that the Philadelphia court is unique because of a number of procedural safeguards built in after noticing that some drug courts provided no representation of clients. However, it was difficult to come up with a plan that was acceptable to both assistant district attorneys and defenders. “There were times I thought it [treatment court] wasn’t going to happen, because there was the matter of ironing out all the details,” she said. “But Judge Presenza wouldn’t give up.”

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