The life and death of the city’s drug court

Jim Chase was a hopeless alcoholic. Twenty-four years ago, Chase could not go a day without buying, stealing or mooching everything from beer to hard liquor. He says he never started drinking without winding up completely drunk by the end of the night, or sometimes the morning. In his car, he kept a liquor bottle so he could take swigs at a red light or during slow traffic.

Chase says he was endangering himself and others and straining his marriage. He had to stop, but he didn’t think he could do it.

Then he got help.

Chase, now 63, says he is still in “the lifelong process of recovery” today, in part with help from New Haven’s “drug court.”

The program, run by the state Judicial Branch, lets chronic drug and alcohol abusers substitute a rigorous treatment schedule for prison time. The theory behind it is that people who commit non-violent drug and alcohol offenses might have a better shot at rehabilitation in the general population than in a jail cell.

Chase has been involved with the drug court for the past six years, but not as a defendant. Chase is the drug court public defender.

Or rather, he was.

On Aug. 1, Joseph Pellegrino, Connecticut’s chief administrative judge, pulled the plug on the experimental program. Citing a huge state budget deficit, Pellegrino cut $1.2 million of the court’s funding.

Many lamented its loss, and some, including Chase, called Pellegrino’s decision “sudden” and “without warning.” But many members of the judiciary thought the drug court was doomed from the start.



A radical idea

Before his first day on the bench, Judge Jorge Simon was charged with accomplishing the impossible.

As he was leaving his swearing-in ceremony on a brisk March evening in 1996, Simon was approached by Judge Aaron Ment, then Connecticut’s chief court administrator. Ment told him the state had recently received a grant to start a treatment-focused prison alternative for drug offenders. A judge would head the innovative effort, Ment explained, and presumably recruit anyone he saw fit — attorneys and social workers, for example.

Ment asked Simon if he would be the drug court’s first judge and charter member.

Still overcome with excitement after the ceremony, the newly minted jurist said, “Yeah, whatever you want.”

Simon now says he had “no clue” what he was getting himself into.

He did not go into it alone. Simon brought in Chase, a prosecutor, a social worker, a treatment agency representative and a case manager to form the nucleus of the drug court, and then he got down to business.

Three days a week were devoted to drug court: one was spent huddled around a table in Simon’s New Haven courtroom reviewing defendants’ applications; the other two keeping tabs on offenders already in the system.

Within a year, the program expanded. Simon added clinicians, another treatment agency representative, and a liaison from the New Haven Police Department. The state’s experiment in rehabilitation was becoming a mainstay.



Drug court nitty-gritty

Anyone involved with the program will say that drug court was not easy to get through. In fact, drug court was not easy to get into, either.

To be eligible, an offender could not have a history of violent crime, and the current charge against him could not include narcotics possession with intent to sell. Applications passing this hurdle went straight to the hands of Simon and the rest of the staff. The program could only support about 100 defendants at a time, so the drug court team had to decide who would be most responsive to the grueling court-mandated treatment phases.

After the initial evaluation, the staff scrutinized the defender’s background, investigating his legal and medical history, particularly records of substance abuse. Simon and his colleagues then judged whether the applicant’s current living situation would be conducive to a tough rehabilitation.

Once finally accepted into drug court, the defendant was required to plead guilty to at least one of the charges against him.

Then the real work began.

The defendant entered an intensive treatment phase — either in a residential drug treatment program or as an outpatient — including random urine and breathalyzer tests, frequent court visits, and mandatory community service.

As the defendant progressed through treatment, the frequency and intensity was often relaxed to allow him time to search for a job or attend school. All told, most successful participants graduated from the program after about four or five months.

And that was if everything went perfectly.

Simon frequently upped the ante for participants not obeying their course of treatment. He did everything from increasing the treatment intensity to sending defendants to jail for a night or two to make them realize how much better rehabilitation feels than prison.

And sometimes he had to invoke more unorthodox methods.

“Once we had this man who worked in a bank,” Chase said, “and he was going through his treatment schedule fine, but he thought he was above everyone else — very arrogant. Well, we made him pick up dog poop at an animal shelter for a couple of days.

“Let me tell you,” Chase said, “that humbles a man mighty quickly.”



Did it work? And for whom?

The Connecticut Department of Correction estimates that it costs taxpayers just over $27,000 to incarcerate an inmate for a year. Drug court at its most expensive, Chase said, cost under $10,000 per offender.

But Pellegrino concluded that cutting the court will save the state nearly $1.2 million: $952,000 from three adult courts, including New Haven, and $197,000 from the juvenile arm of the program.

Judicial Branch spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Hebert declined to provide a more detailed breakdown of the drug court’s budget.

Chase said he has also sought — unsuccessfully — to see such a summary.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Chase said. “We’re clearly saving everybody money, and I do not know where the Judicial Department got its figures.”

Drug court proponents and the Judicial Branch also disagreed about the program’s efficacy.

Of the 536 defendants admitted to the program statewide, 185 — about 30 percent — completed their rehabilitation and 146 were still enrolled in the program when it was terminated. Stearley-Hebert said the Judicial Branch did not believe that defendants in drug court did “substantially better” than those in a normal court.

But Chase said the more telling statistics are those on recidivism — when an offender, presumably clean, commits another crime.

Chase has been tracking the success rate of the drug court both in New Haven and statewide.

Nearly 70 percent of incarcerated drug offenders in Connecticut, and nearly 85 percent of those in New Haven, are arrested for another drug-related offense within three years after being released from prison, Chase said. For drug court graduates, this figure is just under 40 percent.

“It’s truly remarkable,” Simon said. “It’s an unmistakable sign that the program was clearly working.”

Social worker Nikki Sutton, a charter member of Simon’s drug court team, said she knows why.

“What is special — what was special,” Sutton said, “is that we were able to, one, involve the defendant’s family or close friends in the rehabilitation process, and two, that we were able to keep tabs on these people and reach out to them even after they had formally completed our program.”

Sutton said that by maintaining contact with clients even after they were “free to go,” drug court was able to ensure a smooth transition into a better lifestyle and act as a support network, should anything go awry. This, she added, is something the Connecticut prison system does not do.

State Department of Correction officials did not return repeated phone messages, but Sutton, Chase and Simon all said treatment programs in prison are nowhere near as extensive as drug court and end the minute the inmate finishes paying his debt to society.

There might also be a more subtle, lurking secret to drug court’s success, which comes courtesy of academic sociology.

When a person starts to continually exhibit abnormal behavior, he is often branded as “different,” “disturbed” or even a “mental patient.” These labels can be morally destructive, but in time the person being categorized may adjust to better fit his stereotype. This behavior, which University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist Thomas Scheff calls “secondary deviance,” is part of his more expansive theory of labeling.

Scheff argues that friends and loved ones of the labelee also adjust to the pigeonholing, so much so that they cannot see him in any other light. If the drug user experiences a change — say, he is cured of a mental disease and resumes normal behavior — those close to him have a hard time adjusting and actively encourage him to resume the destructive behavior.

This phenomenon, Scheff said, is most pronounced in drug addicts.

“Here’s someone who’s worked incredibly hard to get clean,” Scheff said, “and yet his family has become so used to him as a drug addict that rather than wish him well, they want him to return to the person they knew so well, yet that they despised.

“It’s the concept of comfort zones taken to the extreme,” he added.

But drug court tried to counter any potential of labeling.

Sutton said that, in all cases, social workers and clinicians worked to get a defendant’s family and circle of friends involved in the treatment process. They would see the changes as they happened and welcome them, rather than being surprised when the addict they once knew came home clean. Not so for the prison treatment programs, which do not have such a comprehensive scope.

But the dearth of adequate inmate substance abuse treatment programs, while not unique to Connecticut, is by no means universal.



Getting clean in the Windy City

Starting in the early 1990s, drug courts like New Haven’s sprang up in nearly every state in the country, thanks to generous grants from the federal Drug Court Program Office. In 1997, Chicago joined the bandwagon.

Every day, defendants go in and out of Judge Larry Fox’s courtroom in an imposing seven-story courthouse adjacent to the Cook County Jail in Chicago’s South Side. They are part of a drug court very similar to Ment’s brainchild in Connecticut.

But Chicago drug court operates in a different environment — prison treatment programs in Chicago differ greatly from those in Connecticut. In particular, treatment agencies that serve prisoners “stick around” to ease the transition from cellblock to city block.

“The agencies here are complex, thorough ones,” said Bob Mucci, a Chicago-area public defender. “They go into the jails just like anywhere else, but the difference is on the back end.”

Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, or TASC, is one such agency. Since 1994, it has monitored former prisoners in an effort to determine if they would benefit from additional treatment. TASC has also made efforts to involve prisoners’ family and friends, which helps offset the negative phenomena described in Scheff’s labeling theory.

“We realize that our job isn’t done when these people get released,” said Daphne Baille, TASC’s director of communications. “There are certain factors and triggers in the general population that can cause someone to relapse, and we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

So in some sense, a Chicago drug court might not be as valuable as one in New Haven, where prison programs by most accounts represent the bare minimum of care and offer little assistance for transitioning into a free lifestyle.

Yet Fox’s program has done well. Since its inception, his drug court has graduated 265 offenders, who before entering the program had a combined 1,730 convictions between them. Since graduation, they have committed a grand total of 132 crimes, or less than half a conviction per person. Recidivism — returning to criminal behavior — is about 15 percent lower among Chicago drug court graduates than in incarcerated offenders.

But on top of all the statistical evidence, Fox said the program works because of the tremendous support it has received from the Illinois Judicial Branch.

“For any radical idea like drug court to succeed, you have to have support throughout the judiciary and, perhaps most importantly, you need support from the highest level [of the judiciary],” Fox said.

“Our drug court has that, and has had it from day one,” he added.

New Haven’s Simon said he was not as lucky.

“I think there was a fair amount of politics involved, and clearly someone somewhere must have been politically opposed to what we were doing,” he said. “Yes, it was a new way of thinking, but we showed it was a productive and successful way of thinking, too.”

While Fox’s program expanded — more full-time prosecutors, bail commissioners, caseworkers and public defenders — Simon’s was cut back in 1999 to one full day a week, because there were not enough judges to support more frequent court dates.

Chase said Connecticut’s drug court ran into skepticism from the start. Many jurists did not like the idea of “acting as a — social worker,” Chase said, and some judicial branch officials thought the court was too unconventional.

A friend of Fox’s who had worked with the Connecticut drug court, Judge Burt Kaplan, told him about the uncertainty of his position.

“He said he was never sure how long he would have his job for,” Fox said. “Apparently the powers that be were not terribly supportive.”



All pleaded out and no place to go

The 185 graduates of Connecticut’s drug court are arguably lucky. They avoided a prison term, cleaned up their lives, and for the most part no longer need the social services they were provided by the court. But 79 other drug offenders who pleaded guilty and entered drug court now find themselves facing uncertain futures.

Pellegrino has said the state would stay committed to defendants in this group and help them via other treatment programs. But some may have to do time in prison.

As a judge, Simon has moved on. He now sits on the bench in the Manchester Superior Court and said he has learned to accept the elimination of what he worked so hard to perfect. He has tried to start similar initiatives in Manchester, creating a mental health unit and looking at ways his court can treat the mental illness that often accompanies substance abuse.

But he said it will never be a drug court.

“We just don’t have the manpower to recreate an operation like that here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chase and Sutton remain stationed in the dilapidated Elm Street courthouse, sifting through the files of drug court participants who need a new place to get clean. Chase said he hopes each defendant can get treatment and still avoid prison, but he said that possibility has grown slim.

“For most of these people, drug court was their only hope,” Chase said. “And until Judicial realizes we need to deal in people, not cases, and put social problems above bureaucratic ones, it looks like that hope is gone.”

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