In 1991, Jesse Maloney was caught on a bus in Virginia carrying what he said was "quite a collection" of illegal drugs.
"I had some cocaine, marijuana, Ecstasy, maybe a little Percoset," the 37-year-old Maloney recalled last week as he sat in the living room of a halfway house in the City of Poughkeepsie.
"There were no Drug Courts in Virginia 18 years ago," he said. "I was sent off to prison for six years and got addicted to heroin while I was inside."
Maloney's life didn't get much better for a long time. He was arrested several more times in the next decade, doing occasional time in jails and prisons in New Jersey and New York. Then, in 2007, after a drug-possession arrest in Orange County, Maloney was sent to a drug treatment program. He has been drug-free for more than a year and is determined to turn his life around.
During the spring, Gov. David Paterson signed into law a measure that aims to make it easier for addicts like Maloney with serious felony records to get the help they need to kick their habits and stay out of prison for good. Those convicted of sex crimes and other serious violent offenses would remain ineligible for such treatment programs, however.
The law, part of the Rockefeller Drug Law reform, established a "Judicial Diversion" program, giving judges the discretion to offer many defendants previously required to serve prison terms the opportunity to attend treatment centers instead.
State court officials said the goal of the new law is to treat more addicts who commit crimes and, in turn, save money by reducing the number of people in the prison system.
"What the Legislature said by passing the Rockefeller reforms was that you can do a better job reducing criminal behavior by treating addiction rather than by incarcerating people," said Frank Jordan, executive assistant to Judge Judy H. Kluger, chief of policy and planning for the state court system.
Jordan said the decision to offer treatment to addicts who commit serious felonies was triggered by the success of drug treatment courts for those convicted of drug-related misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. He said studies by the Office of Court Administration in the decade since such courts were established in New York show recidivism rates for graduates of Drug Courts are significantly lower than those who are simply sent back to jail or prison.
According to one study cited by state court officials, defendants were 29 percent less likely to commit new crimes in the three years after they completed Drug Court.
In Dutchess County, Judge Gerald V. Hayes has been tapped to oversee the Judicial Diversion program. Hayes said while he will be called upon to consider drug treatment for some defendants who were not previously eligible, the county already has programs and procedures in place similar to those recommended in the state law. The judge said the Office of Court Administration had reviewed those programs and procedures last month "and found them to be very effective."
Two programs that Hayes and fellow County Court Judge Thomas J. Dolan often use for drug felons are the Intensive Treatment Alternative Program and the Road to Recovery, both administered by the county Department of Mental Hygiene.
ITAP is a daily outpatient program for addicts, most of whom are living at a halfway house after completing treatment at a residential drug rehabilitation center. It includes group therapy, one-on-one counseling and workshops on such topics as anger management and securing housing, education and employment.
The Road to Recovery program offers those facing their second felony conviction the chance to undergo long-term treatment at a rehabilitation center, followed by ITAP. Those who successfully complete the program are permitted to plead guilty to a misdemeanor rather than a felony, while those who fail are sentenced to prison for up to seven years.
Margaret Hirst, the Mental Hygiene Department's clinical division chief for chemical dependency services, said both programs have been effective. "They have worked well for those individuals who choose treatment instead of prison," Hirst said.
She said the programs have been successful because judges, probation officers, mental-health workers, prosecutors and defense attorneys in Dutchess County have learned to work together to place the defendants in the proper programs.
"Coordination and communication are the most important factors, and we've all learned to provide the relevant information to each other," Hirst said.
Toni Horvatin, the social worker at the Mental Hygiene Department in charge of the Road to Recovery Program, agreed.
"We learn from each other, and our judges have become quite astute about spotting potential problems with treatment of some candidates for the program," Horvatin said. "They're learning to think like social workers, and we're learning to think like people in the criminal-justice system."
Hirst said the cooperation between her staff and the county Office of Probation and Community Corrections is essential in determining which defendants are appropriate candidates for drug treatment.
Mary Ellen Still, director of the Probation Department, said she and others in the county "are still inventing the new Drug Court as we go," but she said she was confident it would be effective.
She said she had heard criticisms of Drug Court from those who contend it "coddles" criminals instead of punishing them for their crimes.
"Before you say, ‘Let's go back to the old-fashioned way of doing things,' you should look at the old-fashioned results, and they weren't very good," Still said.
She said studies of Drug Courts cited by the Office of Court Administration have consistently shown that recidivism rates for those who complete Drug Court programs are significantly lower than those who are not treated for their addictions.
"We look at it as a safety issue," Still said. "If you lower the recidivism rate - keep people from committing new crimes - that's the best way to protect the community."
Maloney, the recovering addict at the Poughkeepsie halfway house, said his life changed when drug counselors forced him to examine issues in his childhood that led him to use drugs.
"For the first time, I worked on the issues that were underlying my unhappiness," he said.
"And now, for the first time, I'm at peace. I don't have to worry about hiding my drugs or hiding anything about my life. For too long, I was a runner - I ran from my problems. Now I'm home."
October 27, 2009