Brain Science and Updates From the Field

Treatment Court offers an alternative to offenders

Thursday, December 11, 2014

At a site where they might otherwise have been sentenced to incarceration, a group of individuals were recognized for making the most of a second chance Thursday, Dec. 18.

That’s when a handful ex-defendants stood before family, friends and support staff to mark their sobriety and advance to the next stage of recovery by graduating from Erie County Treatment Court.

“It’s usually an emotional time for therapists and families who have invested a great deal in seeing them graduate,” said Autumn McLellan, Stairways Behavioral Health Forensic clinical director.

Treatment court is a court-sponsored program that offers alternative treatment options for non-violent offenders struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues in lieu of jail time.

Treatment court is a model used in place of traditional prosecution for certain offenses in courts across the country and has gained popularity in recent years. In Erie, treatment court is broken down into drug, mental health and family dependency courts, all of which are presided over by Judge William Cunningham.

In March, Erie County President Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr. approved a veterans’ court—a program aimed at addressing veterans with addiction and mental health problems. DiSantis assigned Judge John Garhart to head up the court, which became the 18th such program in the state and will operate independently of the other three treatment court programs.

Since its inception in 2000, Erie County treatment court has graduated well over 200 individuals and witnessed on multiple occasions the benefits of using a more supportive and therapeutic approach in place of traditional punishments.

“The courts are more receptive to working with these offenders on issues that may arise because they recognize the mental health component,” said Wayne Sharrow, supervisor of Stairways Behavioral Health’s Drug and Alcohol Clinic.

Stairways has formed a close working partnership with the county in providing mental health services to those involved in treatment court. With the help of Stairways and other providers, treatment courts generally focus on treating the problems that cause the offenders to commit crimes.

Treatment court does have certain eligibility restrictions, Sharrow noted.

“If someone can’t be monitored that would be reason not to include them in treatment court,” he said. “The same is true for if there is a victim who is not welcome to the idea in the victim impact statement.”

Individuals who have applied for and are approved for treatment court attend weekly court hearings that track their adherence to the court’s conditions. Each defendant stands before Cunningham, who evaluates their progress and orders further discipline or treatment.

Staff from Stairways, the Erie County Probation and Parole Department, the district attorney’s office, Erie Office of Children and Youth, Erie County Care Management, Erie County Office of Drug and Alcohol, the Public Defender’s office, other service providers and Cunningham meet prior to the weekly hearings to review offenders’ progress and decide on the proper course of action. Should offenders violate the conditions of their treatment-court sentences, they can be sentenced to traditional penalties, such as jail time.

Offenders are monitored by probations and are subject to random drug testing. Additionally, they must comply with the conditions set forth by the court at the weekly hearings, including those relating to work and personal matters.

“If there is a bad living situation, we try to make arrangements to get them in better situations,” McLellan said. “And if the judge says you have to leave (your current living situation), then you have to leave.”

Treatment court’s pragmatic approach to justice has yielded positive results for courts utilizing the program, as national recidivism rates for graduates are regularly lower than offenders who don’t participate.

On Dec. 18, Erie County residents who completed the program’s three requisite phases and appeared before the court for graduation were the latest group to represent the efficiency of treatment court— a means of reintegration and rehabilitation McLellan endorses.

“I’d recommend (treatment court) to anyone because the need to be held accountable is so great and treatment court offers that,” she said. 

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