Once I offered my client the chance to start a program, he accepted eagerly. He wasn’t someone for whom treatment had failed. He jumped at the chance to try. In fact, he checked into treatment the very next day.
Statistically, he was actually a better bet than your average drug offender: A Georgia study showed that DWI offenders who go through treatment courts have a recidivism rate of around 15 percent over four years—significantly lower than the 25 percent recidivism rate for drug court participants over two years and than the 35 percent recidivism rate expected for these types of offenders.
My client had already shown willingness by starting treatment, and even the judge, after learning of his background and the fact that he had never had treatment, wanted to see him in treatment court. We were finally addressing the root of his lifelong criminal problems—but none of this was enough to get him into a diversion program. The prosecutor refused access to the program he controlled, and the treatment court judge refused my client entry to the program, citing program rules. The case lingered for over a year, as I filed documents and tried repeatedly to gain access to these programs on my client’s behalf. Again and again, I was told he was simply outside the rules, with a record too long and suffering from the wrong addiction. Rejected from the treatment court, we were sent back to the original judge.
This, as it turns out, is how we get to that 3.8 percent cited above—even though programs are available, the people who are at risk of incarceration are weeded out, for one reason or another, denied access and sent back towards the prison pipeline. For someone with a record, with a longstanding problem, ineligibility is the rule, not the exception. Without the treatment court, my client faced a term of up to three years in an upstate prison, followed by a reentry into a world in which he no longer had a job, or the ability to support his family.
That problem—seeing incarceration as the norm and any alternative as a “gift” from the prosecution—is not unique to New York. Across the country, local legislatures are creating ways out of the prison pipeline, and local officials are finding ways to stay “hard on crime” and keep the pipeline moving.
My client, for his part, continued to fight, taking advantage of what he has learned since starting treatment. When his new job in a factory resulted in his being exposed to alcohol in the product, he negotiated with his company, left that position, and found another where he would not be exposed to alcohol. Months later, when he could no longer afford to pay for treatment, he found another program that his insurance would cover. He put his entire strength into fighting his alcoholism. After being rejected by the prosecutor and rejected from the judicially-run treatment court, my client was sent back before a judge who was unafraid of making controversial decisions. The judge heard his story, and looked at the records of treatment my client had been doing for over 18 months, and made him an exceptional offer—if he pled guilty to the felony and stayed out of trouble for a year, continuing in treatment, he would close the case with a fine, a lengthy license suspension, and the installation of an ignition interlock device (a breathalyzer on the car steering wheel). Failure to meet these terms would mean prison. The judge would personally monitor my client’s progress, monthly. He wanted my client to stay employed, stable, and involved with his daughters’ lives.