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Convicted offenders get new option

Treatment court will enable some to avoid jail time

August 28, 2010
A new program will keep some criminal offenders out of jail, giving them the option to seek treatment instead. Judge Maureen Skerda told a group of around 35 people at the Warren County Courthouse on Friday afternoon about treatment court. She described it as a high-impact, post-plea program. The court serves as a voluntary, structured program that serves non-violent offenders. The program includes ongoing treatment, intense court and probation supervision as well as community support services. Participants will see their probation officers several times each week and must submit to routine drug tests. An effective treatment court includes the relationship between participants and the presiding judge, according to a brochure on the program. Treatment court differs dramatically from criminal court, according to the information. The judge, district attorney, probation officers and treatment professionals work together with participants to help them make changes in their lives to overcome addiction. Participants remain in treatment court for a minimum of 18 months. Upon completion, they should be clean and sober, according to the brochure. In addition, participants will have increased job and educational opportunities, and will also be more likely to remain in treatment and remain clean and sober. The first treatment court began in 1990 and now over 2,100 treatment courts operate in the United States and its territories. Planning for the 37th Judicial District treatment court began in this spring. The court will start admitting participants in this fall. It costs approximately $20,000 per year to house an inmate in the Warren County Jail, but only $4,000 per year for an offender to participate in treatment court. The information claimed studies have shown recidivism rates for treatment court graduates of between 4 percent and 29 percent. Those who do not participate in treatment court have a recidivism rate of 48 percent. At the time of an arrest, Skerda said police officers can make a referral to the court. The district attorney serves as the gatekeeper, she said, and determines an individual’s eligibility. She said the program has received its first referral. The first class should graduate within 18 to 24 months. The court does not yet have a coordinator, Skerda said. However, she said organizers have extended an offer and are awaiting a response. Warren County District Attorney Ross McKeirnan said he has worked with courts for the past 27 years. Consistently, he said people tell judges how addiction causes their problems. “I offer an ice cream cone to anyone who gets through the program,” McKeirnan said. “It’s that difficult.” By keeping people out of jail, McKeirnan said treatment court will save the county money, adding that only persons who have been convicted are eligible for the program. As the program focuses on people with addictions, McKeirnan said it will exclude people who focus on selling drugs. For example, McKeirnan said if the offender makes methamphetamine to sell or brings drugs from Buffalo, that person will not get into treatment court. Public Defender John Parroccini said a large percentage of offenders will not succeed. However, he said the ones who do will provide an asset to the community. Adult Probation Director Carl McKee said the county needs the program because traditional methods do not work. Treatment court offers a more proactive approach, he said. “Offenders are kids who have made a stupid decision,” McKee said. “Their experiments turned into an addiction.” Jen Gesing, director of community services for Beacon Light Behavioral Health Systems, said the program will ensure participants attend all of their appointments. It provides them with services they need, she said, and helps them lead natural lives.

Article Photos

Times Observer photo by Colin Kyler
Judge Skerda



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