ALBANY – At 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, Judge Gerald W. Connolly entered his court to find not one empty seat in the room. All benches were occupied, the jury box was full, and chairs had even been set up on the opposite side of the room. People from ages 7 to 65 filled the space — some with tears in their eyes, others smiling wide, and all caught up in the reason for gathering that day: In just a few minutes, Judge Connolly would graduate 13 individuals from Albany County Drug Court.
Albany County’s felony treatment court is a non-adversarial and non-punitive diversion program that was started in 2002 by Judge Stephen W. Herrick. Today, diversionary programs are common throughout the state and address issues beyond substance use disorders. Their goal is not simply to divert individuals out of the criminal justice system, but to restore them so that they can act as positive forces in society.
Like most diversion programs, Albany County Drug Court offers an alternative to incarceration. The program accepts individuals with substance use disorders who plead guilty to nonviolent felonies. Pending successful completion of 17 months of regular meetings, counseling, treatment and court sessions, felony charges are usually either reduced to misdemeanors or even dismissed entirely.
“Drug court uses the leverage of a criminal charge to help motivate people to change their lives,” Assistant District Attorney Renee Merges, who works with Albany County Drug Court, explained. “The structured case manager/treatment provider/judicial supervision model helps provide maximum support to people with substance abuse disorders, assisting them with making better choices.”
According to Public Defender and Albany County Drug Court team member Melissa Aiezza-Carpinello, the focus of drug court is restoration.
“The purpose of diversion and these problem-solving courts is to not only make the person whole, but to teach the person how to stay whole for the rest of the person’s life,” she said. “You don’t go to drug court to get out of prison. You go to drug court to change your life.”
The Drug Court Model
Although drug courts are now common throughout the state, this off-ramp to the criminal justice system was not always so prevalent.
“I remember drug court being one of the most controversial things that came into the criminal justice system,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares said.
“It’s almost become traditional prosecution now,” Merges added.
Before creating a felony drug court, Judge Herrick established the first drug court to exist in Albany in Albany City Court in 2000. This regional court is still operating and handles mostly misdemeanor level cases.
Problem-solving courts in the county have since expanded to include a mental health court, youth mentorship court and other diversion programs. The town of Bethlehem even operates a treatment court of its own, run by Judge Ryan Donovan.
Albany County Drug Court is by far the largest of these diversion programs. Merges estimates the total number of active participants to currently be around 80, with about 20 pending referrals. But, as the court’s Resource Coordinator and Project Director for New York’s Third Judicial District Craig Stratton points out, drug court does not operate with a set capacity.
“We’re talking about human beings and their lives and the services that they need,” he said. “So to put a cap on services would be a total disservice.”
“Every other diversion program that comes after basically uses the drug court model,” Soares said. “This model was very effective in the sense that it forces us all on that journey, which is why when a person graduated, it’s all of our graduation. And if a person fell off, then collectively we all shared in that feeling as well. It’s one of the few moments in our system that we can all root for the same thing.”
In order to participate in drug court, an individual must admit to a felony conviction. While looking at that person’s case, a prosecutor, public defender or judge may ask to have them evaluated for a substance use disorder. The individual is then remanded and sent to Albany County Correctional Facility to await evaluation, whereupon the type of care they need will be determined.
In this manner, cases may be referred to Albany County Drug Court, where the individual can then be offered an official drug court plea. Upon acceptance of this plea and successful completion of the program, criminal charges are reduced. If the individual instead fails to complete the program, they are likely to face a state prison sentence.
“Each person is looked at based on that person’s situation in diversion programs,” Aiezza-Carpinello said. “It’s not this one-thing-fits-all. We’re able to look at what each individual person needs.”
Stratton also emphasized that the focus of the program is on the people participating in it.
“We’ve realized over years that they are individuals. They come from different backgrounds and have different areas that need to be addressed, so we tailor our services,” he said. “Hopefully we can change one individual’s life, that eventually changes that individual’s family’s life, which eventually turns into affecting the community in a positive way.”
The Drug Court Team, Participants Reflect
Within Albany County Drug Court are several tracks, including a path for DWIs, one for all other nonviolent felonies, and a veteran-specific treatment program. Participants in all programs are required to meet with their case managers at least once a week, attend drug court sessions that are also held weekly, work with Albany County Probation, and undergo treatment. Failure to meet these goals often results in the judge imposing graduated sanctions on participants, such as requiring them to write a statement or remanding them to Albany County Correctional Facility for the weekend.
“It is a team effort,” Stratton said. “Our case managers really do the hard and heavy lifting of each case that comes into the court.”
Currently working as Albany County’s case managers are Audrey Ashley, Jeanette Camacho and Darren Conoby, some of whom have a background in substance abuse counseling. In addition to meeting with participants at least once a week, case managers help connect them to other resources available in their communities.
Stratton added that participants also interact with Judge Connolly, who helps identify abstinence times, marks milestones and celebrates accomplishments, such as completing a treatment program or securing employment, with them.
“We do this thing honestly and for real — and intentionally we do this work,” Stratton said. Also on the Albany County Drug Court team are Albany County Probation Officer Meighan Autrey, Albany County Public Defender Peer Support Specialist Arthur Williams, Albany County Mental Health (Central Management Unit), secretary Patricia Waterbury, and current Veteran Mentor John Delbaso. Former Veteran Mentor Burt Thorne recently passed.
“They should be acknowledged and recognized because they show up every day for the benefit of the participants,” Stratton said. “Many of them have been with us for a while because of their commitment to see people improve their lives.”
Participants in Albany County Drug Court are well aware of the team’s hard work. All 13 graduates in June made it a point to thank the many people involved in the program for their support.
“With a little honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, I’ve found a new way to live,” graduate Daniel said.
A few graduates also spoke directly to the people sitting across from them, many of whom were current and new participants in the program.
“I won’t tell you that you’ll make it just because I did, but I can tell you that you’ll make it if you want to,” Amanda said. She then turned to address her fellow graduates: “Now is the time to hold ourselves accountable.”
Graduations are typically held every four months and are balanced by a steady flow of referrals. Drug court requires individuals to stay in the program for a minimum of 17 months, but Stratton said that most are often around for 19 or 20.
Judge Connolly acknowledged the fact that the program, which can sometimes last for over two years, is not an easy one.
“We’re not here to check boxes,” he said. “We’re here to make sure folks are on the path to a life they want to live.
Expanding Eligibility, Legislation and
As far as developments in the program go, Stratton finds that Albany County Drug Court has continued to move in a more evidence-based direction, following guidelines set by the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS).
“We make sure that we’re up to date on all practices related to substance use disorder treatment, and the operations of all drug courts,” he said. “We are here to help individuals specific to their substance use disorder and any other co-occurring disorders that they may be experiencing at the time.”
Aiezza-Carpinello said that she would like to see more members from communities most at risk for substance use disorders included in drug court.
“If you want to try and get to the reason why all of this is happening, you have to bring the most affected communities into the criminal justice system,” she said.
She cited Judge Andra Ackerman’s youth diversion program U-CAN as a successful example of community mentorship.
“I would like to see a future where more people in the criminal justice system are pulled out for diversion,” Aiezza-Carpinello continued. “That division is expanded in the criminal justice system to the point that if there’s anyone who can participate in it, they’re allowed to participate in it.”
Currently, a bill to expand the eligibility of defendants to participate in diversion programs is being considered by the New York State Legislature. The bill, known as the Treatment Not Jail Act, would require treatment courts to accept individuals with certain mental health concerns, intellectual and other disabilities, as well as some violent offenders. It would additionally expand diversion programs across the state.
The Treatment Not Jail Act sits at an impasse, partly because some New York State assembly members are made ambivalent by the fact that it also increases due process rights for participants in diversion programs.
“There is a desire to have a little bit more of a hook,” New York State Assemblymember Patricia Fahy, who is not a co-sponsor of the bill, said.
The hook that Fahy describes refers to the criminal justice system’s ability to hold both potential and active diversion program participants. According to Soares, it was made substantially less effective with criminal justice reforms adopted by the New York State Legislature in 2019.
“Bail reform has created a revolving door for people with addiction,” Soares said. “We see addicted defendants with multiple charges continue to be released, whereas in the past those same individuals would have been assessed and connected with service and drug court much earlier on.”
Although drug court remains a viable option for many individuals, offering them a second chance at a life they may have always wanted to lead, for others, recent criminal justice reforms and deadlocked legislation make this off-ramp to the criminal justice system inaccessible.
“I want as many people to be taken out of the traditional justice system as possible because the traditional criminal justice system is so oppressive,” Aiezza-Carpinello said. “The cards are so stacked against certain people that it’s just impossible to get better.”
This story is part of a three part series by Spotlight News on diversionary justice. The second part will be published next week and focus on local diversion programs beyond Albany County Drug Court. The last will dive deeper into the impact of COVID-19 and recent criminal justice reforms on diversionary justice in the county.
John McIntyre contributed to this story.
This story appeared on page 1 of the July 26, 2023 print edition of the Spotlight