Pubdate: Fri, 03 Dec 1999
Source: New York Daily News (NY)
Copyright: 1999 Daily News, L.P.
Contact:  450 W. 33rd St., New York, N.Y. 10001
Author: Austin Fenner, Daily News Staff Writer


Rehab Program Gives 'em A Second Chance

There was a time when all they wanted to hold onto was a crack pipe or a
rock of cocaine.

But this week, the 17 men and women gathered in a courtroom in Kew Gardens
Supreme Court were each holding something entirely different - certificates
bound in blue binders that were tangible evidence that their drug-addicted
days were a thing of the past.

The 17 former addicts were the first class to graduate from an experimental
program called the Queens Drug Court.

They had been lower level drug dealers - nonviolent offenders who hustled
drugs to support their habits. Each was handpicked for the rare opportunity
to turn their life around through guidance outside the confines of prison

Participants had to plead guilty to their offense, and then stay clean and
sober for a year. If they failed, the drug court would impose the
1-to-3-year jail terms requested by the district attorney's office.
Assistant District Attorney Ken Holder, chief of the Queens district
attorney's Narcotics Trials Bureau, wrote the proposal that won a federal
grant to fund the court.

In addition to no jail time, those who successfully graduated got a bonus:
The cases against them would be dismissed, and the record of those cases

The graduation ceremony on Tuesday was filled with applause, cheers and a
soul-stirring gospel choir salute by the Jamaica Community Adolescence

With a delicate bouquet of flowers from her daughter, graduate Shirley
Robinson, 49, spoke of how she had conquered an addiction to crack that
bedeviled her life for 20 years.

"A year ago today, I was on Rikers Island. I weighed 80 pounds [because of
drugs]" said Robinson, who said she is HIV-positive. "I had low
self-esteem. I was a bitter and angry woman. I asked God to give me one
more chance to be a mother."

In the past year, Robinson said, her life has taken a complete turn. She
and her fellow graduates credited the curriculum of relapse prevention,
acceptance and building self-esteem they learned in group sessions at a
variety of drug prevention programs.

Helping the group along the way was a cast of judges, prosecutors and court
officers, who ordinarily would spend their time handcuffing, prosecuting
and sentencing such offenders.

"I'm more nervous now, than when I got arrested," said former addict John
Healy during the ceremony. "I'm happy to talk here, instead of behind bars.
This program gave me a chance to live a life without drugs."

The heartfelt speeches by the graduates had the state's Chief Judge Judith
Kaye wiping away tears.

"Many people are watching to see if the program should be expanded," Kaye
said in her remarks to the graduates. "People are watching how you conduct
your lives."

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Southeast Queens) urged the group to continue
believing in themselves.

"Don't be afraid of what tomorrow holds; if you have faith and confidence
in yourself, then you will do okay," the congressman said. "The burden [to
be drug free] is on your shoulders."

District Attorney Richard Brown said his office often finds itself
prosecuting addicts who are unable to break the cycle of addiction and go
on to commit other crimes.

"The first class of graduates proves it is possible for substance abusers
to turn their lives around," said Brown.

Judge Leslie Leach presides over the current crop of 200 defendants in the
experimental program.

"The program allows them [participants] to reflect on their behavior," said
Leach. "It helps break the cycle of addiction."

For graduate David Rivera, the drug court has helped him to measure the
value of his life.

"The treatment has [served] me so well," he said. "I don't take life for
granted anymore."
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