Luzerne County, Pennsylvania and its Treatment Court is still in the news. Luzerne County, still reeling from the "Kids For Cash" scheme where an estimated 4,000 children were wrongly imprisoned by PA Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan is still at it. The "Kids for Cash" scheme broke in 2009 with the federal racketeering charge of getting kickbacks for sending nearly everyone that came before them to a Detention Center that practiced the infamous 12 Step “Hazelden Program Standards” and the judges are now behind bars for their part in the debacle. It would appear that despite having ties to the Mafia, organized crime and the suicides and depression that this unfair treatment caused, they are still at it strong with the Luzerne County Treatment Court, but they are running out of money. Hopefully they won't be looking for alternative funding like Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan did.
Court aims to reform addicts, reduce crime, costs
By AMANDA CHRISTMAN (Staff Writer)
Published: August 5, 2012
Amid the grandeur of the Luzerne County Courthouse, where ornate wooden mouldings adorn the courtrooms that represent the pillars of the justice system, an inmate accustomed to cold prison walls seeks a second chance.
Whether he gets that is up to a judge presiding over a new speciality court.
The inmate jailed for a drug- or alcohol-inspired crime initially may be looking for a quick way out of prison, but he eventually finds reform through a relatively new arm of county court.
The Luzerne County Treatment Court was created after studies showed substance abuse was a major problem in the county that led to crime.
That study, conducted by the Luzerne County Drug and Alcohol Study Commission, showed 85 percent of inmates arrested for a drug- or alcohol-related crime were arrested again for similar crimes after their release from prison, said Kelly Cesari, a probation officer who serves as treatment court coordinator.
Concerned about the county's substance abuse problem and its relationship to the recidivism rate, the commission found a fix with the treatment court.
And the fix worked, Cesari said.
Planning for the court began in 2005 and it accepted its first client in January 2006.
Drug courts have existed in the United States since the 1980s. They were established to treat the root of a person's criminal behavior - their addiction to drugs or alcohol - after court officials found that for most inmates, prison and probation were not enough to keep them from reverting to old habits, Cesari said.
Luzerne County Treatment Court currently has a yearly caseload of 50 clients. To date, 107 people have graduated and 11 percent of them have been rearrested, Cesari said.
Nationwide, she said 60 percent to 80 percent of inmates will be returned to prison after their release because of drugs and alcohol.
How it works
An inmate, or a family member or attorney, can petition the treatment court for admission and the staff will review their application, Cesari said.
To qualify, a prospective inmate must be an adult resident of Luzerne County and cannot have a violent criminal history, such as charges of felony aggravated assault, robbery, rape, arson and residential burglary, Cesari said. They also cannot have a drug delivery or possession charge against them.
Each applicant must undergo a clinical screening to prove they need treatment and be screened by the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office for legal eligibility, she said. The arresting police officer and victims in each case are contacted for their approval of the person being accepted into the program.
From there, clients are directed to obtain full-time employment or return to school, obtain a permanent residence and counseling for their needs, Cesari said.
Each client meets at least once a week with Judge William H. Amesbury, who oversees treatment court, to update him on their progress. Amesbury will give praise for good work or impose sanctions if a client begins to fail, Cesari said.
Treatment court staff meets with each defendant about three times a week to discuss their cases prior to their weekly appearances before Amesbury. Defendants also must meet each week with their probation officer and with their case manager at Catholic Social Services, an agency that analyzes the level of care necessary for success.
In addition, each client is given mandatory and intensive drug and alcohol treatment that is arranged through the court and must attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Cesari said.
Clients undergo random drug testing through a urine sample or drug-detection patch they are required to wear. The transdermal sweat patch is changed every five to seven days and tested for indications of drug use, she said.
It typically takes 12 to 18 months for a person to graduate from treatment court, though some are in the program longer, Cesari said. Graduations are held two or three times each year.
Another requirement for entry into the program is that each defendant pleads guilty to the charges against them. The charges will be dismissed at graduation.
After one successful year without a rearrest or relapse, a client can petition the court to expunge their record for a misdemeanor offense. After three successful years, a client can have a felony expunged.
Additionally, clients must come to court every three months after graduation to update Amesbury on what they are doing to stay clean.
However, if they break the rules of the court, they are terminated from the program and then face a criminal sentence, Cesari said.
About 80 percent of the clients who come into the court are not employed and many are homeless, Cesari said. Treatment court requires them to change that, she said, while giving them the tools to stay clean and not commit another crime.
"It's a program that's working, it's helping people, it's saving money, it's good for the county," she said.
Cesari said an independent evaluation showed each treatment court graduate saved the county $41,332 in prison costs, meaning the program has eliminated $4,422,524 in prison costs since it began.
Treatment court costs about $12 per day per client, she said, and has an annual operational budget of $194,000. Additionally, clients pay court costs, a program fee and any restitution to victims.
"They are paying back their debt to society - literally their debt," she said.
Treatment court recently completed a site visit for optional accreditation with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If accredited, Cesari said, the court would be monitored by the state and would be placed in "better standing" for grant awards. The accreditation, she said, would help the state with data collection so it can monitor how each treatment court is performing.
Funded for the past three years by a U.S. Department of Justice grant that expired June 30, treatment court is surviving the remainder of this year with money set aside by the various county departments that participate, including the probation office and district attorney's office.
Though the 2013 county budget is under discussion, the direction it will lead treatment court is uncertain, she said.
The court's staff includes Amesbury, a magisterial district judge who fills in when needed, two probation officers, two case managers and a treatment coordinator at Catholic Social Services, an assistant district attorney and court administration liaison.
Not all of the positions are funded by the treatment court budget, Cesari said, as some would be on the county payroll anyway.
Yea or nay
Cesari said graduates often say they would not be alive if not for the program, "and from what I see I believe them."
Ed Pane, chief executive officer of Serento Gardens in Hazleton, also praised the program, noting it is saving money and lives, monitoring clients closely and preventing crime.
Pane said successful clients are motivated by their desire to be sober and the court gives them an extra level of oversight.
Proper treatment isn't possible in prison, he said, because of overcrowding. And with the presence of gangs in prison, Pane said it is almost mandatory for an inmate to sign up with a group to survive the environment, causing additional problems.
Law enforcement officers have mixed feelings on the court.
West Hazleton police Chief Brian Buglio said he believes the court was designed with the right intentions in mind and will work if the client wants it to.
"The person using it has to want to make a change and break that addiction," Buglio said. However, he fears that some people will try to use treatment court to lessen their prison stay or the severity of their charges.
Buglio said it is not the police department's decision whether a person is admitted to treatment court.
"It's out of our hands after we make the arrest. We only handle the enforcement of the law," he said.
Buglio said he knows of one person arrested by his department who was admitted to treatment court but didn't follow through with the program and was rearrested before graduating.
Sugarloaf Township police Chief Josh Winters said the longer an addict is away from the ability to obtain drugs, such as by incarceration, the better their chances of staying clean.
Winters said it is hard to believe the recidivism rate in the court was so low, based on the experiences he has had with drug addicts. He also admitted that police often are unaware if the person they arrested was successful unless they are rearrested.
However, Winters said he would still recommend those he has arrested to treatment court because it may work for them.
Jim McMonagle, the assistant district attorney assigned to treatment court, said he has watched some clients relapse but others succeed.
"People are literally saved but unfortunately not everyone takes advantage of the opportunity they are given," he said.
Treatment court, he said, gives clients the tools to control their addiction and become a productive member of society. From his understanding, McMonagle said, a big part of becoming clean is wanting to do it.
When the program works, he said, it frees up space in the prison and time in the courtroom by reducing the number of future criminal cases. It also helps solve the community-wide problem of substance abuse.
"It's one less call a police officer has to go on, and it's one less court case," he said.
McMonagle said he is proud to see people succeed in treatment court, as each success story takes one drug user off the street and lessens the demand for drugs.
"It gives me hope that people can succeed and get through difficult times in their lives and as a community we can handle a difficult problem," he said.