Newton District Court recently launched a drug court as part of an effort to expand access to addiction treatment in the state.
The program, the 19th in the state’s court system, is essentially one of enhanced probation. Offenders have to agree to undergo intensive therapy and random drug testing, and to have a weekly hearing before a judge to evaluate progress, with most requirements tapering off over time if the requirements are being met.
The goal is to free participants of addictions so they can maintain a job and live independently, while reducing recidivism to protect the public.
“The data is very significant that drug courts reduce recidivism, particularly when you target high-need, high-risk offenders,” said Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan, the Dedham District Court’s presiding justice and the director of specialty courts in the state’s District Court Department.
Although there are critics, the state is trying to expand its drug courts after a decline in recent years. The 19 courts are concentrated primarily in Eastern Massachusetts, including programs in Ayer, Chelsea, Lawrence, Lynn, Malden, Quincy, and Plymouth. District courts in Dudley and Worcester are planning to set up drug courts, according to Joan Kenney, spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court, which oversees the state system.
“I did for years want a drug court here, and the powers that be at the time said we weren’t big enough,” Newton District Court Judge Dyanne Klein said in an interview last week. “This past year, we all in the district court received notice that there was a push by the trial court that they wanted drug courts in as many courts as people could set up.”
As the name implies, many drug courts are tailored to offenders with drug problems, but the Newton session will specialize in both drug and alcohol addictions.
Mark Strauss is about to graduate from drug court in Concord. Alcohol, he said, was his drug of choice.
“For me it’s been life changing,” he said. “It was forced structure that I needed. It has basically just helped me deal with real life under strict supervision. . . It’s a very intense program,”
Strauss, 28, said he has been on probation most of his adult life. He ended up in drug court after he violated his probation by driving under the influence. At the time he was on probation for an assault and battery, and it was either drug court, and all the requirements that come with it, or a prison sentence of at least 12 months, he said.
Strauss, who lives in Maynard, started the program in January 2012, and since then he has found a job and is working to get his real estate license.
Talk therapy has been key to his success, he said.
“The best thing this program has taught me is to let how I feel out [by] talking to people,” said Strauss. “That led to my drinking: I just kept everything inside.”
The program is a huge commitment, said Hilary Curtis, program director for drug courts in Ayer and Concord. With four phases, taking on average about 18 months to complete, the weekly requirements start with three group counseling sessions, individual therapy, and three or four random drug tests, she said.
By contrast, addicts being held in prison, which costs more, can still get drugs and learn how to be better criminals, she said.
“It’s a huge saver of taxpayer money,” said Curtis, who is also program director for Advocates Inc. “The more drug courts, the better.”
Robert A. Mulligan, the state Trial Court’s chief justice, said in a statement that drug courts work well when used appropriately.
“The efficacy of drug court sessions now is widely accepted for use with appropriate clients when nationally proven evidence-based practices are followed,” he said via e-mail. “We want to ensure that any expansion is consistent with proven protocols and processes.”
But there are critics.
The nonprofit Justice Policy Institute does research and some advocacy on criminal justice reform. Its position is that money would be better spent on community-based programs, particularly ones that try to prevent substance abuse.
“Our criticism is that we don’t want this to become a mainstay of the criminal justice system, where people still have to come into the criminal justice system to receive help,” said Melissa Neal, senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based institute.
There are many people coming into the system with addictions, she said, and to that extent drug courts are the right idea. But, she said, her group wants to prevent arrests and help people before their addictions get them into trouble with the law.
In Newton, offenders have a 10-member team working for them and meeting regularly, including Klein, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police officers, community treatment providers, Assistant Chief Probation Officer Richard Guzzi, and Probation Officer Rhonda Smith, who facilitates the drug court sessions.
“We’ve seen defendants coming before the court on a domestic assault and battery because they needed money and their family wouldn’t give them money for their drugs and it turned into an assault,” said Smith. “Their addiction has led them to reoffend.”
In addition to drug possession, other common crimes might be gun possession, breaking and entering, larceny, and theft, said Klein, first justice at Newton District Court.
Offenders might have violated their probation, said Klein, or they might have a pending case where disposition could be a suspended sentence and probation conditional on meeting the drug court’s requirements.
Newton’s drug court started with five candidates, and two had been accepted as of last week, said Klein. Those who aren’t accepted will probably go to jail, she said.
The program has to be a good fit for the offender and a safe solution for the public.
If they do well, they can reap rewards including reduced probation. If they use drugs or reoffend, they risk going to jail, she said.
“The first 18 months will be our most telling,” said Klein. “I’m hoping that we’re going to be able to help people be successful in their recovery, and not reoffend and not start using again.”