ALBANY – Although diversion programs first began as an alternative to incarceration based on what some call restorative justice, these programs now vary beyond drug courts. By offering individuals an off-ramp to the traditional criminal justice system, their main focus is on helping people become more positive forces in society through long-term treatment.
“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,” said Albany County Public Defender Melissa Aiezza-Carpinello, who works with Albany County Drug Court. “You’re giving people a whole second chance at the life they really want.”
Although Albany County Drug Court is the largest of these programs in the area, it is by no means the only one available. Problem-solving courts have expanded since its inception to address issues beyond substance use disorders, offering treatment for mental health concerns, fostering mentor relationships, and taking on restoration at even the local level. Spotlight News took a closer look at
three of these programs: Judge Andra Ackerman’s youth diversion program U-CAN, Bethlehem’s own treatment court run by town Judge Ryan Donovan, and Albany County’s mental health court.
On Friday, July 14, Ackerman convened her court in Albany County to officially change the course of one young man’s life. By reducing his charge for criminal possession of a weapon to a misdemeanor, she and the rest of her team brought his participation in a year-long youth diversion program known as U-CAN to a close. Their work will stay with this man for the rest of his life, who is now without what Ackerman calls the “concrete necklace” of a felony conviction.
U-CAN is an entirely volunteer-based diversion program that was started by Ackerman and Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications at the NYS Unified Court System John Caher in 2017. The program was propelled by a troubling trend Ackerman saw in her court: a train of young and often unsupported kids, many of whom seemed to be on an inevitable path to state prison.
“Judge Ackerman thought maybe there was a better alternative for some of these people, and that alternative is U-CAN,” Caher said.
U-CAN offers young people an off-ramp to the traditional criminal justice system by pairing them with community mentors for a year. During that time, participants are placed on interim probation and must meet regularly with their mentor, maintain a job, make an effort to obtain their GED if necessary, undergo drug and alcohol testing, and comply with any other condition that Albany County Probation Officer Melissa Bulger deems appropriate. They must also appear before Ackerman once every month for an update and evaluation. Upon successful completion of the program, most participants are offered a misdemeanor plea.
“U-CAN is very much a tough love program,” Caher said. “The judge demands accountability. Every transgression will be met with a consequence.”
According to those involved in the program, community mentorship is central to U-CAN’s success.
“When I was going through hard times, I could always count on my mentor being there for me,” one former participant said. “I could actually trust her.”
“Most of our mentors, after they finish the year, sign up to do it again,” Caher said, adding that both he and Ackerman have served as mentors themselves.
Participants in U-CAN are typically young, have no significant priors, and no known gang affiliation. The program does not accept individuals who are active shooters. In order for a case to be admitted into Albany County Court, the district attorney, defense counsel, Albany County Probation, U-CAN team, and Ackerman must all offer their consent.
Many of the cases that Ackerman sees in Albany County involve criminal possession of a weapon (CPW), according to Caher. He added that U-CAN now operates in Albany Family Court, Erie County, Schenectady City Court, Schenectady Family Court, Syracuse City Court, and Binghamton City Court as well.
“U-CAN was never created to take on gun cases, and frankly when we started, I never imagined that we would allow into the program someone charged with criminal possession of a weapon,” Ackerman said. “We took a few of those cases … and because nearly all of the young men and women that were offered this chance did great, the opportunity was offered to others.”
Given the recent uptick of gun violence in Albany County, how Ackerman’s court will handle a select subsection of CPW cases qualifying for U-CAN is set to change slightly. Moving forward, these individuals will be required to spend a longer amount of time on probation after completion of the year-long program in Albany County. This change only concerns select CPW cases and should not impact U-CAN’s ability to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors. It went into effect directly after Ackerman’s most recent session on July 14.
According to Caher, U-CAN has seen incredible success in just a few years and is still looking to expand its reach across the state. He added that programs should be up and running in Ithaca City Court and possibly Tompkins County Court soon.
“It bothers me that I know there are many young people out there who would benefit from the program and who would succeed in the program that are sitting in state prison because that option was not available to them,” Caher said. “That should not be.”
There is no understating the ability of U-CAN to redirect the courses of some young people’s lives.
“U-CAN literally changed my life,” one former participant said. “When I first went to jail, I was lost and I had nowhere to go, no good support system and what you did for me just literally changed my life and opened up a lot of doors for me.”
Donovan was one of the first justices in the area to begin operating a diversion program at the local level. Established in 2017, his treatment court has since evolved to address issues beyond addiction, such as mental health concerns.
“We care a lot about the people in our court and we take no pleasure in people going to jail,” Donovan said. “The idea is that we are an instrument for positive change in people’s lives.”
Unlike Albany County Drug Court, Bethlehem’s treatment court only takes on cases at the misdemeanor level. Sentencing is suspended and participants are placed on interim probation for a year, during which they must comply with the conditions of the enhanced arrangement. These conditions are similar to Albany’s and include required drug testing, mandatory attendance at treatment, as well as regular meetings with lawyers, probation officers, and Donovan himself.
“It’s not a one size fits all program,” Donovan said. “We tailor the program to the person.”
Upon successful completion of the program, participants can have their misdemeanor conviction reduced to a violation or even dismissed entirely. If violating the conditions of enhanced probation, they may instead be placed in jail and sentenced for the rest of the interim.
“We hold them accountable and we let them know that we care, that someone’s here and that we’re listening,” Donovan said. “Giving someone structure is a way to show we care about them.”
Although attendance is currently down in Donovan’s court, the program has seen up to 10 participants in years past.
“There’s no capacity,” Donovan said. “There’s no limit to what we would do to try and help people.”
Donovan attributed this below average number of cases to enduring effects of the recent pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we did everything we could, and we still lost most of the people in the program,” he said. “We haven’t really recovered since Covid.”
Nonetheless, Donovan’s treatment court continues to be a viable alternative to incarceration, offering individuals a life beyond mere diversion out of the criminal justice system.
“It’s there to do what the judges are supposed to, which is actually help people, not hurt them,” he said.
“It’s been my saving grace and it’s saved my life,” Skyler, a former participant of the program, said. “If it weren’t for Donovan, I’d be dead, in jail again or a lost cause.”
Mental Health Court
The pervasiveness of mental health concerns is by no means a county-specific or even state-specific issue. Lack of a well-built mental health system has allowed the crisis to consume communities across the entire country, and Albany is no stranger to its effects.
“This is one of those things that just cuts across every community,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares said. “It’s something that every family struggles with.”
“We don’t appear to have the resources to handle the real problem, which is mental health,” Donovan said, whose own diversion program also treats mental health issues. “If you want to put resources somewhere, it’s mental health.”
To help address the issue, Albany County established a mental health court in March 2021, which was the first of its kind in New York’s Third Judicial District. The program is run by Judge John Reilly at Albany City Court and involves mostly nonviolent misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies. It requires that all participants be examined and meet criteria set by the Albany County Department of Mental Health identifying them as having a serious mental illness. According to Albany County Assistant District Attorney Renee Merges, the court has seen five successful graduates since its inception.
Like all diversion programs, Albany County’s mental health court is based on 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,” he explained. “It’s one of the few moments in our system that we can all root for the same thing.”
Albany County Drug Court Resource Coordinator and Project Director for New York’s Third Judicial District Craig Stratton explained that the need for mental health services often becomes apparent in drug court.
“A lot of individuals, although they had a substance use disorder, saw the mental illness become more of a primary, opposed to substance use being a primary,” he said.
According to Soares and Merges, the main difference between drug court and mental health court is what they termed a “longer runway.” While participants in drug court spend an average of 17 to 20 months in the program, those in mental health court are kept on a more flexible time frame.
“It’s tragic, and it’s a complicated issue because you don’t want to use a criminal justice tool to address someone who isn’t taking medication,” Soares said. “What you also cannot have is someone who should be taking medication not taking medication and harming other people.”
Albany County’s mental health court was initially created to address both treatment needs of participants and public safety concerns of communities. But given recent criminal justice reforms adopted by New York State in 2019, specifically bail reform and discovery reform, both Soares and Merges feel that the court isn’t being utilized as effectively as possible.
“We’re not seeing that court being maximized to its fullest potential because we’re not populating that court with the possible applicants who, but for the ability not to detain and arrest, there is no other mechanism to get [them] into court,” Soares said.
These reforms, according to Soares, have made it increasingly difficult to hold and thereby obtain mental health evaluations from individuals who might otherwise qualify for judicial diversion programs. Their impact extends to Albany County Drug Court as well, resulting in what Soares described as a revolving door in court for many people with substance use disorders.
“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,” he said. “Without that mechanism to get people into the criminal justice system, I don’t know what you do.”
This story is the second in a three-part series by Spotlight News on diversionary justice. The first part focused on Albany County Drug Court, and the third will further address the impact of recent criminal justice reforms on diversion programs next week.
John McIntyre contributed to this story.