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Plan to Offer Drug Program in Lieu of Jail is Questioned

The New York Times By Katherine E. Finkelstein


The ambitious plan that New York State’s chief judge announced Thursday – in which most nonviolent criminals who are addicts will be offered drug treatment instead of jail – would be extraordinarily complicated to set up, some prosecutors said yesterday, even as they praised the concept.

Some defense lawyers and drug treatment experts also raised questions about the plan set forth by chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, expressing concern that clients who flunked out of treatment programs could face far harsher sentences for offenses like burglary and prostitution than they do now.

And while drug treatment experts praised the plan as something they have long advocated, some said that matching the eligible defendants with appropriate treatment would also be difficult, even though the state’s1,200 treatment centers are not at capacity.

Judge Kaye’s plan is patterned after 16 pilot drug courts across the state that sentence eligible offenders who test positive for drugs to rehabilitation, under strict court monitoring. By 2003, she wants to offer the same alternative in every court in the state. The program would not apply to violent criminals or those facing mandatory sentences like the ones imposed under the Rockefeller-era drug laws.

The plan relies on the notion that prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges in each jurisdiction will be able to agree on which offenders should be eligible. Some prosecutors, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that forging such agreements could be difficult. they said that district attorneys, for example, might have a higher threshold for determining who is nonviolent.

Almost no one debates the efficacy of drug treatment programs. They work for about 70 percent of participants in drug courts across the country, according to criminal justice studies. All 50 states operate drug treatment courts in some form, though none do so statewide.

While Judge Kaye has wide latitude to restructure the court system, individual counties – and prosecutors in particular – will retain discretion in the extent to which they use the programs. Statistics compiled by the commission that advised the chief judge show how widely that can vary. For example, in Brooklyn, which has operated a pilot treatment court since 1996, the courts have diverted 1,558 nonviolent offenders to drug treatment, including 342 last year. In Manhattan, where a pilot court was started in 1998, 136 have participated, including 78 last year.

Yesterday, several prosecutors said that they were not familiar with the intricacies of the vast plan to effectively create a new apparatus of drug treatment coordinators, as well as those to screen and monitor defendants, within the courts. “Treatment is good,” said Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau. “But we haven’t spoken with them about the specifics.”

Mary de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Richard A. Brown of Queens, said, “To the extent that they can expand existing drug treatment courts and detox programs which result in treatment for nonviolent offenders, it will be to the good.”

In Brooklyn, Deputy District Attorney Anne J. Swern, who served on the commission, said it would work differently in different places. “New York is a complex state with complex substance abuse problems,” she said. “I’m in a county where the district attorney embraces treatment. Maybe I don’t wrestle with some of the questions that other district attorneys wrestle with.”

Some defense lawyers, meanwhile, expressed concern. “We have been going in the direction of treatment court in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but the devil is in the details,” said David Kapner, of Manhattan’s Legal Aid Society. “the fear among defense lawyers is that if your client falls off the wagon, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

And even though Judge Kaye has said the plan would save the state $500 million a year in prison, foster care and mental health costs, questions remain about the cost – from the need for more judges in places like New York City to the cost of expanding drug treatment programs to Medicaid, which pays for some drug rehabilitation for the poor.

Dr. Peter Provet, president of the Odyssey House drug treatment program, said that with the influx of addicts into treatment, there might not be enough slots for those in the system with special needs.

He said, “You have to ask, ‘Who are the people we’re talking about?’ You need to look at the population of addicts in a very differentiated way. In Judith Kaye’s program, if they have a 60-year-old with addiction, then we have very few beds, but for a single adult, there are many more available beds.

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