By PENNY CLUTE
---- — When I speak to classes at SUNY Plattsburgh and Clinton Community College each semester, they mostly want to hear about Clinton County and Plattsburgh’s Mental Health Court and Drug Court.
Those are the specialized treatment courts that I presided over as Plattsburgh City Court Judge.
Drug courts, according to West Huddleston, the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, take on “seriously addicted individuals with long criminal records who have alienated nearly everyone they love.”
These defendants have used up many second chances.
The insight behind drug courts is that the traditional approach of courts, probation and treatment are not sufficient to be effective with this very challenging clientele.
When mental-health issues are added, the work is even more complicated. Therefore, the drug and mental-health courts have a heavy emphasis on treatment and on supervision.
It takes a great deal of time and effort — by both the person with drug and/or mental-health issues and the professionals — to make the lasting changes necessary to achieve real recovery.
We know that getting people into treatment and keeping them there as long as possible increases the likelihood of long-term sobriety and life changes.
This approach sees the potential in people, not just the problems they are having.
Compared to regular probation, there is much more accountability — and also much more support — for the defendant/probationer in a treatment court.
The defendant is sentenced to intensive probation and required to continue appearing in court every two weeks.
This can go on two years or more, until the person graduates from the treatment court. A team of professionals — usually including a probation officer, treatment professional, prosecutor and defense attorney — works with the judge.
The team and judge meet to confer on cases every two weeks before the court session and often are in contact with each other between court dates, especially if there are problems with any of the probationers.
A problem-solving court is a part of the regular court, but a defendant’s experience in drug court or mental-health court is far different from the usual process.
So is the judge’s role.
In the traditional parts of a criminal court, the judge’s responsibility ends when the sentence is imposed and the case is closed.
In a treatment court, in many ways, the judge’s job is just beginning at sentencing.
In Clinton County, Mental Health Court is a sentence option for defendants diagnosed with a “severe and persistent” mental illness, and Drug Treatment Court is available to defendants assessed as dependent on alcohol, marijuana or other drugs.
Essex and Franklin counties have drug courts, too.
Only defendants who agree to be in treatment court are accepted. They must be motivated to work at their recovery and must agree to be in treatment, as well as to take any medications as prescribed. They sign a detailed behavioral contract, which becomes part of their probation conditions.
ATTITUDE A FACTOR
The design of these problem-solving courts allows them to be more effective in addressing problem behavior.
Because the team shares information about a probationer’s setbacks and progress, there can be rapid response to issues. If there is a missed treatment appointment, relapse, an outburst at probation or any other problem, the judge and the entire team are immediately notified.
The judge can require the probationer to appear in court right away, if need be, and not wait until the next scheduled treatment-court session. Sometimes the resolution may be increased treatment; other times it may be a prompt jail sanction — or something in between.
The type of response taken by the judge and team depends greatly on the probationer’s attitude and willingness to be truthful and responsible.
CAN SAVE LIVES
The judge’s role is to help motivate the person to succeed, using jail sanctions if need be. The judge and team also use small rewards to reinforce positive change and help probationers set behavioral goals to keep moving forward.
It is a continuing long-term effort.
Not everyone can do it, even with all the structure, accountability, treatment and caring support.
For some, though, being in treatment court saves their lives.
They do make the needed changes, and being part of the team effort is very much worth it.
Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.
Plattsburgh Drug Court information: http://tinyurl.com/oxp9lxh
Plattsburgh and Clinton County Mental Health Court information: http://tinyurl.com/qagx525
Clinton County and Plattsburgh Drug Court contacts: http://tinyurl.com/oc6ueuc
Essex County Drug Court contacts: http://tinyurl.com/phzlx78
Franklin County Drug Court contacts: http://tinyurl.com/o463jeq
New York State: http:www.nycourts.gov/courts/problem_solving and http://tinyurl.com/7xvfvvv
National Association of Drug Court Professionals: http://www.allrise.org
Research and information by the Center for Court Innovation: http://tinyurl.com/6m7gs8j and http://tinyurl.com/ort9atw
Research and information from the Justice Center, Council on State Governments: http://consensusproject.org/issue_areas/mental-health-courts and http://tinyurl.com/pduyrgg