A New Option for Felony Drug Offenders!

A New Option for Felony Drug Offenders!
Posted by FoM on March 04, 1999 at 11:20:14 PT

Rehabilitation: Similar to a successful Municipal Court effort, the program calls for rigorous treatment, including 90 days of sessions in jail. 
 Craig sits in a circle facing the same 10 men every day, baring his soul and confronting his drug-induced demons head-on. Once in a while his family visits, peering at him from behind a glass window. He fills a cup five days a week as part of his court-ordered drug testing.   For 15 years, he snorted cocaine, smoked marijuana and ingested PCP, living life on a precarious edge of drugged pleasure and private pain. After an arrest for felony drug possession, Craig had come to a crossroads in his life. He could have gone to state prison for a couple of years--with a chance of getting out early for good behavior and no hope of kicking his drug addiction.   Instead, he chose the new Sentenced Offender Drug Court, an intense 15-month rehabilitation program aimed at helping felony drug offenders beat their addictions and to curb California's exploding prison population.   After four years in the Los Angeles Municipal Court system, drug courts are so successful they have served as a template for similar programs nationwide. Now, Superior Court officials are hoping for similar success for those facing stiffer felony drug charges.   "The hardest part for me is that if you're not honest with yourself, this program won't work," said Craig, 28. "You got to get buck naked, show yourself and work hard . . . so you can get over your addictions."   Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan launched the drug program in August with a $400,000 budget backed by federal, state and county grants. To make sure his program succeeds, Tynan enlisted the help of Impact House, a drug rehabilitation facility that already works for the Los Angeles Municipal drug court program.   "We are attempting to help salvage the lives of people before they lose it," said Tynan, a Superior Court judge for 15 years. "Simply locking up an addict is not the answer to the problem. I want them to get sober."   The program is not a simple slap on the wrist. It's tough, aimed at cleaning up an addict's life.   Defendants must plead guilty to their drug offense and agree to enter the rigorous program. The addicts are sentenced to a 90-day drug treatment program in the County Jail , and then a monitored period of transition back to independent living and probation.   In jail, they attend classes to improve self-esteem and job skills. They are also subject to random drug testing. Daily therapy sessions and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are mandatory. The group therapy often takes the men on an emotional roller coaster ride. Many of them are not used to sharing their feelings with others.   "For me to break down and cry in front of these men is hard," admitted Victor, 40, who was arrested for possession after 27 years of drug abuse.   After serving jail time, the addicts will spend at least 30 days in the Impact House drug rehabilitation facility in Pasadena. Upon release from Impact House, they must find a job, spend a year in a clean-living home or halfway house and attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings four times a week. Participants must be sober for at least six straight months to graduate. If they fail any of the requirements, the addicts must undergo additional therapy and may have some privileges revoked.   They go on probation for five years, but if they fail, they could be sent to state prison.   "You can't just see them once a week and expect them to recover," said Vann Hayes, contract services director at Impact House. Hayes also oversees the misdemeanor drug court program, which boasts an 80% success rate.   Municipal Judge Stephen Marcus started the first drug court program for misdemeanor offenders. He said the more hardened, serious felony offenders must face Tynan. "I think his program is vital to Los Angeles because of the hard-core addicts he takes on," Marcus said.   As more felony drug court programs are established throughout the state, officials hope they will help relieve California's growing prison population. About 40% of state prison inmates come from Los Angeles County, and nearly 28% of all prisoners are jailed for felony drug offenses. The state prison in Solano has a mandatory drug rehabilitation program for its inmates. The other state prisons offer similar programs for parolees.   "The program sounds like a very promising effort to try to relieve some of the prison overcrowding," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. "Those who are convicted need to serve some sort of jail time, but hopefully they won't be rearrested after programs like this."   In July, President Clinton granted $27 million to more than 150 court jurisdictions across the nation to plan, implement and track the progress of drug courts.   U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno spearheaded the first drug courts in Miami during her term as state attorney for Florida's Dade County. However, her program was criticized in 1991 after it expanded to include those with felony convictions. A study showed that a quarter of the Miami drug court graduates were rearrested on felony charges. Prosecutors also accused felons of plea-bargaining to lesser offenses, and gaining entry into drug court.   Los Angeles has avoided that problem by strictly limiting the eligibility for both of its drug court programs. Those with drug sales or violence connected to their drug offenses are not eligible. Offenders with prior felony convictions may participate if they don't have strikes. But officials from the offices of both the Los Angeles district attorney and public defender say eligibility requirements may be too stringent here.   "This court's real problem is that such a small pool qualifies," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Annemarie Acosta. "I hope they relax the eligibility requirements a little bit, and I think the floodgates will open and we'll see more participants."   Most of the men and women entering Tynan's drug court are charged with possession or being under the influence.   As each case is called, the men clad in orange jumpsuits walk into the courtroom handcuffed to each other. They sit at the public defender's desk, facing Tynan.   He takes a stern but gentle approach. He comments on notes taken by jail officials and asks each how they are progressing. He compliments them on personal hurdles they have overcome and reprimands those who aren't keeping pace.   "I'm not going to baby them," Tynan said. "This isn't just another alternative-sentencing program. It's a commitment to change lives."   On a recent afternoon, a man new to the program said, "I want to thank you for helping me and giving me this chance."   "I hope you mean that sir," replied Tynan. "This is a lifelong process, and you can make it work by taking it one step at a time."
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