Pubdate: Sun, 08 Oct 2006
Source: Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, CT)
Copyright: 2006sMediaNews Group, Inc
Author: Marian Gail Brown, Connecticut Post
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Efrain Rivera is charged with possession of narcotics, essentially the
same crime Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi has acknowledged
committing. But he finds himself in far different circumstances.

He's in Bridgeport Superior Court, a few blocks from City Hall, his
wrists crossed behind his back as if someone might slap cuffs on him
at any second.

When seven sweaty guys in baggy jeans and leg irons shuffle in on the
way to another courtroom, he looks away fast. He doesn't want to be
like them.

In the past, Rivera has been charged with possession of cocaine. This
time it's heroin. His checkered past raises the stakes: If things go
badly he might find himself among more than 700 inmates serving time
in state prisons for possession of cocaine or heroin -- not dealing or
trafficking, just possession.

A heavy wooden door slams behind the chain gang and Judge Roland
Fasano leans forward to appraise Rivera. The judge's questions,
translated into Spanish, dig into the defendant's history of drug use.

than his 47 years, is in court for a probation violation for narcotics
possession, for which he could face up to 11 years in prison and a
$50,000 fine.

"Do you understand this, Mr. Rivera?" Fasano intones. The defendant
nods and says, "Yes."

Like most defendants accused of drug possession, Rivera will probably
avoid prison. The state and federal governments both seek in these
cases to avoid imposing hard time, which costs taxpayers upwards of
$25,000 a year.

And despite complaints that Fabrizi received special treatment after
his name turned up in a drug probe, prosecutors say they almost never
pursue charges based solely on a statement -- particularly by a person
with no criminal history. They fear it would discourage addicts from
coming forward and getting help.

Users like Rivera, charged with possession, often wind up in the
state's drug-interdiction docket, formerly known as drug court.

Unlike a typical criminal proceeding, the judge engages Rivera in
dialogue. He has already met with experts and attorneys who have
deemed it likely Rivera can kick his habit through counseling and
treatment. Ultimately, they make an offer few defendants would refuse:
enter a court-approved treatment program and avoid prison altogether.

He'll undergo court-ordered substance-abuse treatment, random
drug-testing and counseling, at an average cost of $7,000 a year, less
than one-third the cost of prison.

Nationally, there are more than 1,200 drug courts with 500 more in
planning stages. They deal with addiction as a disease and favor
treatment over prison. The goal is to transform users into healthy,
law-abiding citizens, not hardened ex-cons.

Florida created the nation's first drug court in 1989 to deal with a
rising tide of cocaine in its cities. Connecticut's docket is based on
that model, focusing on regular judicial monitoring, drug testing and

It's one of several programs offered by Connecticut's judicial system
that allow drug defendants to get help for their addictions instead of
serving hard time.

The programs, generally available to nonviolent or first-time
offenders, are among the reasons the state has relatively few people
in prison on mere possession charges.

Of 14,191 people in Connecticut prisons, 720 or roughly 5 percent are
doing time exclusively for narcotics possession, according to the
state Department of Correction. For another 1,267 inmates, narcotics
possession is a contributing factor to their conviction on other
charges. State prison officials say they don't have data showing how
that breaks down among cocaine, heroin and other drugs. But
unofficially they say cocaine and crack users account for something
like 60 percent of those in prison for narcotics possession, with
heroin users making up most of the balance. Blacks make up 51 percent,
whites 20.5 percent, and Hispanics, 27.6 percent of prisoners serving
time for narcotics possession.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the General
Assembly's Judiciary Committee, says it's ineffective to put drug
users in prison, a faulty strategy in a failed war on drugs.

Drugs are cheaper and more potent than ever, he says, and they remain
widely available even inside of prisons.

"The more people you send to jail for narcotics possession the more
overcrowded prisons become," Lawlor says. "Prison is a poor place to
go for substance abuse treatment."

While the maximum prison sentence for cocaine and heroin possession
has declined in the last five years from 300 months to 240 months,
according to the state Department of Correction, the mean sentence
inmates serve in state prisons is 26.1 months.

Nearly nine out of 10 Connecticut inmates arrive with substance abuse
problems, state Department of Correction statistics show. Yet only 22
percent of that population gets treatment in jail.

Brian Garnett, spokesman for the state Department of Correction, says
Connecticut is committed to helping inmates kick their addictions and
resume productive roles in society.

"At the same time, we have to be realistic. What that means is you
take your finite resources and prioritize them to help the people who
are going out the door -- the ones that are closest to discharge.
That's what's practical," he says.

Connecticut spends $12.5 million annually on its various
substance-abuse treatment programs, a figure that has remained stable
for the past decade. "Do we find drugs in prison? Sure," said Garnett.
"Are they readily available? Not by any means."

But a Connecticut gardener who served time for cocaine possession says
it was "finding religion in jail" -- and not drug counseling or
treatment -- that helped him kick his cocaine addiction. "God knows
there was all kind of stuff around," he said, speaking on condition of

Despite the nation's decades-old drug war, few drug users go to
federal prison for possession. Statistics from the U.S. Sentencing
Commission show that in the first nine months of 2005, there were
18,510 federal drug arrests, of which 17,892 involved drug dealing and

But cocaine and heroin possession arrests that led to prison accounted
for a mere 0.8 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively, of those
sentenced for federal drug crimes.

In the federal scheme, simple possession of small amounts of drugs for
personal use is a misdemeanor. "The solution is not to throw these
people in jail, but to get them treatment," said U.S. Attorney Kevin
O'Connor. That's why prosecutors say it's unlikely someone like
Fabrizi would be prosecuted, much less imprisoned.

The mayor's name turned up during a federal drug probe this spring,
when a document surfaced in which he was said to be looking for
cocaine. Fabrizi subsequently acknowledged occasional cocaine use in
the past. He was not charged, although O'Connor says the wider probe
remains "ongoing."

O'Connor says it would be counterproductive to prosecute someone based
only on a statement or admission, without witnesses or other evidence.

"I don't think we want to dissuade people from acknowledging a drug
problem. If you did that, nobody ever would admit to having a drug
addiction and people would wind up too afraid to seek help," he says.

In Connecticut, there's evidence that alternative incarceration
programs save money and are effective in helping addicts reform.

In 2002, the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the
University of Connecticut observed that a "broad array of research"
has found incarceration to be more expensive than treatment and less
effective in terms of modifying behavior and stopping recidivism.

There are also indirect social considerations that are difficult to
put a price on.

Children whose parents go to prison on narcotics possession or other
charges often suffer from loneliness and fear of abandonment, and have
difficulty concentrating in school, say those who work with them.

"Is it any wonder in Bridgeport schools why standardized test scores
aren't what administrators might like to see?" asks attorney Sylvester
Salcedo, who represents dozens of clients facing custody battles
because of their drug activity.

Salcedo is also a former officer in the nation's war on drugs, having
overseen a counter-narcotics intelligence operation for the Navy.

"How can you expect a kid to focus on tests in a classroom, let alone
learn, when they are preoccupied with mommy or daddy being gone? You
can't," says Salcedo. "Before you can make a meaningful improvement in
standardized test scores, you have to address what's taking place in
many of our poorest urban cities because of drugs."

Jaimie DeSisto agrees. DeSisto is program director of Champions
Mentoring, a federally funded program that pairs adult mentors with
youngsters who have parents in prison.

They often have difficulty concentrating and fear ridicule from their
peers; they also worry friends' parents will find out. They're
uncertain about when their parents will leave prison and tend to grow
up early, caring for younger siblings, she says.

"They grow up a lot harder and have to be much more savvy because they
function in 'survival mode' all the time," DeSisto says. "They tend to
resent law enforcement and think they are just out there picking apart
their family."

DeSisto says 75 percent of these children in Connecticut follow their
incarcerated parents into lives of crime.

The Center for Connecticut Economic Analysis projects that if the
state transferred 20 percent of inmates to alternative incarceration
programs, the state would gain 989 to 3,958 jobs annually, boost its
gross regional product between $77 million to $311 million, and
increase its net state tax revenue anywhere from $11.2 million to
$47.7 million.

Still, some are apprehensive about how accused cocaine users may fare
in drug courts.

"These drug courts are a gamble," Salcedo says. "If everything works
out right, they can save somebody's life and keep their family intact.
But if the person relapses, as many recovering addicts often do, then
the penalty is harsh: It might mean incarceration for double the time
they otherwise might have received or a maximum sentence for drug

Even supporters acknowledge that prison-alternative programs have
limits. Connecticut public defenders, who represent many of the
accused that come through the drug intervention dockets, say it's
common to see clients appear and then reappear in these courtrooms.

"With drugs like cocaine and heroin, it's very much a revolving door,"
Chief Public Defender Gerard Smyth says. "People often fail many times
before they succeed, and the judges involved in the drug courts
recognize that."

Yet even with all of its shortcomings, Maureen Derbacher, drug docket
administrator for the Connecticut Judicial Branch, sees virtue in the
drug docket. "Through this court and the programs we set up, we help
them deal with the whole constellation of issues that draw them to
drugs. This is no Band Aid approach," she said.

To date, more than 65 percent of the drug offenders who enter
Connecticut's drug courts in Bridgeport and complete their mandates
for intense counseling, therapy and random weekly urinalysis, have
stayed clean.

"Drugs are only one small part of their problem. What we have to do is
get them to change their entire pattern, which also includes help with
job training and help finding employment," says Carl Sciortino,
director of the Liberation Program in Bridgeport. Before he made the
switch from state prosecutor to the bench, overseeing Bridgeport's
drug court, Judge Fasano concedes that he had doubts about the
program's ability to steer addicts away from drugs and crime.

"Let's just say that as a former prosecutor, I was cynical," Fasano
says. "I had seen a lot of offenders come through the courts again and
again. Now I have a more global, shall we say, perspective on the
problems the people who come through this court face. I can see them
really try. I see them struggle with it. And when they accomplish what
they set out to in this court, it's tremendous satisfaction. And you
just hope that they stay on track." 
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