syracusecountycourthouse3Erin D., a young woman wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan “Tattooed chicks do it better” walked up to the stand.

“You wearing that to job interviews?” Judge James H. Cecile asked, much in the tone of a parent questioning his daughter’s clothing choices. “I wouldn’t wear it,” he added.

The court was the Syracuse Community Treatment Court, informally known as “drug court,” and Erin was one of 36 people who made an appearance in April 2014. In order to be eligible for Syracuse’s drug court, a defendant charged in Onondaga County must be in need of treatment for substance abuse, and have no prior convictions for violent felonies, Project Director Kim Kozlowski said. When defendants agree to participate in the program, they sign a contract admitting they broke the law and waiving their right to a trial, agreeing to treatments, drug testing, sanctions, and regular court appearances. Part of the program also involves participants getting jobs and/or attending school.

Participants have an average age of 27-31, with more males than females enrolled. Many of them are addicted to heroin, a drug that has made a comeback since its prominence in the 1970s. People usually spend close to 18 months in the program. Drug court currently has 248 participants enrolled.

Not everyone finishes the program. Laquan C. was led out in handcuffs. “I will do anything to finish,” he pleaded, desperately speaking of the progress he had made in employment and schooling. But Laquan had been given a last chance back in September, Cecile reminded him. The judge ordered Laquan to be sentenced.

“When I ask a participant, ‘hey, what’s going on?’ it is not a good sign,” Cecile said, adding “I don’t ask a question I don’t know the answer to.”

This could be seen when James D. took the stand. A tall young man with a low voice, James had earlier attempted to dodge a drug test. He admitted he had relapsed two days ago when he got high in his car. Cecile ordered that James spend a week in jail. Deputies immediately handcuffed him. As they began to lead him away, James protested, saying “Are you really going to take me in?”

“I’m making sure you’re clean for your next court date,” Cecile responded.

“It’s not the use that’s being punished; it’s the behavior surrounding it,” Kozlowski said. If participants admit to a relapse before a drug test, it is treated clinically. But if participants lie about relapsing or avoid a drug test, many times they are taken into custody.

“Graduates aren’t getting in trouble at the same rates as those who take other approaches,” Cecile said. Approximately 65 percent of participants graduate from the program.

Soft-spoken Rayshawn A., whose daughter was just born, came forward. Rayshawn smiled as Cecile congratulated him. He smiled again when Cecile told him he was free to go.

“People do it for themselves, their families, their own life,” Kozlowski said.


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