Pubdate: Sun, 05 Aug 2012
Source: Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA)
Copyright: 2012 The Standard-Speaker
Author: Amanda Christman


Amid the grandeur of the Luzerne County Courthouse, where ornate
wooden mouldings adorn the courtrooms that represent the pillars of
the justice system, an inmate accustomed to cold prison walls seeks a
second chance.

Whether he gets that is up to a judge presiding over a new speciality

The inmate jailed for a drug-or alcohol-inspired crime initially may
be looking for a quick way out of prison, but he eventually finds
reform through a relatively new arm of county court.

The Luzerne County Treatment Court was created after studies showed
substance abuse was a major problem in the county that led to crime.

That study, conducted by the Luzerne County Drug and Alcohol Study
Commission, showed 85 percent of inmates arrested for a drug-or
alcohol-related crime were arrested again for similar crimes after
their release from prison, said Kelly Cesari, a probation officer who
serves as treatment court coordinator.

Concerned about the county's substance abuse problem and its
relationship to the recidivism rate, the commission found a fix with
the treatment court.

And the fix worked, Cesari said.

Planning for the court began in 2005 and it accepted its first client
in January 2006.

Drug courts have existed in the United States since the 1980s. They
were established to treat the root of a person's criminal behavior -
their addiction to drugs or alcohol - after court officials found that
for most inmates, prison and probation were not enough to keep them
from reverting to old habits, Cesari said.

Luzerne County Treatment Court currently has a yearly caseload of 50
clients. To date, 107 people have graduated and 11 percent of them
have been rearrested, Cesari said.

Nationwide, she said 60 percent to 80 percent of inmates will be
returned to prison after their release because of drugs and alcohol.

How it works

An inmate, or a family member or attorney, can petition the treatment
court for admission and the staff will review their application,
Cesari said.

To qualify, a prospective inmate must be an adult resident of Luzerne
County and cannot have a violent criminal history, such as charges of
felony aggravated assault, robbery, rape, arson and residential
burglary, Cesari said. They also cannot have a drug delivery or
possession charge against them.

Each applicant must undergo a clinical screening to prove they need
treatment and be screened by the Luzerne County District Attorney's
Office for legal eligibility, she said. The arresting police officer
and victims in each case are contacted for their approval of the
person being accepted into the program.

 From there, clients are directed to obtain full-time employment or
return to school, obtain a permanent residence and counseling for
their needs, Cesari said.

Each client meets at least once a week with Judge William H. Amesbury,
who oversees treatment court, to update him on their progress.
Amesbury will give praise for good work or impose sanctions if a
client begins to fail, Cesari said.

Treatment court staff meets with each defendant about three times a
week to discuss their cases prior to their weekly appearances before
Amesbury. Defendants also must meet each week with their probation
officer and with their case manager at Catholic Social Services, an
agency that analyzes the level of care necessary for success.

In addition, each client is given mandatory and intensive drug and
alcohol treatment that is arranged through the court and must attend
Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Cesari said.

Clients undergo random drug testing through a urine sample or
drug-detection patch they are required to wear. The transdermal sweat
patch is changed every five to seven days and tested for indications
of drug use, she said.

It typically takes 12 to 18 months for a person to graduate from
treatment court, though some are in the program longer, Cesari said.
Graduations are held two or three times each year.

Another requirement for entry into the program is that each defendant
pleads guilty to the charges against them. The charges will be
dismissed at graduation.

After one successful year without a rearrest or relapse, a client can
petition the court to expunge their record for a misdemeanor offense.
After three successful years, a client can have a felony expunged.

Additionally, clients must come to court every three months after
graduation to update Amesbury on what they are doing to stay clean.

However, if they break the rules of the court, they are terminated
from the program and then face a criminal sentence, Cesari said.

About 80 percent of the clients who come into the court are not
employed and many are homeless, Cesari said. Treatment court requires
them to change that, she said, while giving them the tools to stay
clean and not commit another crime.

"It's a program that's working, it's helping people, it's saving
money, it's good for the county," she said.

Funding uncertain

Cesari said an independent evaluation showed each treatment court
graduate saved the county $41,332 in prison costs, meaning the program
has eliminated $4,422,524 in prison costs since it began.

Treatment court costs about $12 per day per client, she said, and has
an annual operational budget of $194,000. Additionally, clients pay
court costs, a program fee and any restitution to victims.

"They are paying back their debt to society - literally their debt,"
she said.

Treatment court recently completed a site visit for optional
accreditation with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If accredited,
Cesari said, the court would be monitored by the state and would be
placed in "better standing" for grant awards. The accreditation, she
said, would help the state with data collection so it can monitor how
each treatment court is performing.

Funded for the past three years by a U.S. Department of Justice grant
that expired June 30, treatment court is surviving the remainder of
this year with money set aside by the various county departments that
participate, including the probation office and district attorney's

Though the 2013 county budget is under discussion, the direction it
will lead treatment court is uncertain, she said.

The court's staff includes Amesbury, a magisterial district judge who
fills in when needed, two probation officers, two case managers and a
treatment coordinator at Catholic Social Services, an assistant
district attorney and court administration liaison.

Not all of the positions are funded by the treatment court budget,
Cesari said, as some would be on the county payroll anyway.

Yea or nay

Cesari said graduates often say they would not be alive if not for the
program, "and from what I see I believe them."

Ed Pane, chief executive officer of Serento Gardens in Hazleton, also
praised the program, noting it is saving money and lives, monitoring
clients closely and preventing crime.

Pane said successful clients are motivated by their desire to be sober
and the court gives them an extra level of oversight.

Proper treatment isn't possible in prison, he said, because of
overcrowding. And with the presence of gangs in prison, Pane said it
is almost mandatory for an inmate to sign up with a group to survive
the environment, causing additional problems.

Law enforcement officers have mixed feelings on the

West Hazleton police Chief Brian Buglio said he believes the court was
designed with the right intentions in mind and will work if the client
wants it to.

"The person using it has to want to make a change and break that
addiction," Buglio said. However, he fears that some people will try
to use treatment court to lessen their prison stay or the severity of
their charges.

Buglio said it is not the police department's decision whether a
person is admitted to treatment court.

"It's out of our hands after we make the arrest. We only handle the
enforcement of the law," he said.

Buglio said he knows of one person arrested by his department who was
admitted to treatment court but didn't follow through with the program
and was rearrested before graduating.

Sugarloaf Township police Chief Josh Winters said the longer an addict
is away from the ability to obtain drugs, such as by incarceration,
the better their chances of staying clean.

Winters said it is hard to believe the recidivism rate in the court
was so low, based on the experiences he has had with drug addicts. He
also admitted that police often are unaware if the person they
arrested was successful unless they are rearrested.

However, Winters said he would still recommend those he has arrested
to treatment court because it may work for them.

Jim McMonagle, the assistant district attorney assigned to treatment
court, said he has watched some clients relapse but others succeed.

"People are literally saved but unfortunately not everyone takes
advantage of the opportunity they are given," he said.

Treatment court, he said, gives clients the tools to control their
addiction and become a productive member of society. From his
understanding, McMonagle said, a big part of becoming clean is wanting
to do it.

When the program works, he said, it frees up space in the prison and
time in the courtroom by reducing the number of future criminal cases.
It also helps solve the community-wide problem of substance abuse.

"It's one less call a police officer has to go on, and it's one less
court case," he said.

McMonagle said he is proud to see people succeed in treatment court,
as each success story takes one drug user off the street and lessens
the demand for drugs.

"It gives me hope that people can succeed and get through difficult
times in their lives and as a community we can handle a difficult
problem," he said.
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