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Dozens to graduate from county programs

Instead of going to jail, they’re going to work or school.

Defendants who opted for treatment will be celebrated Friday as the first graduates of the Monroe County Judicial Diversion Program.

Also a first is that their graduation will be combined with the commencement of those in the Rochester Drug Treatment and Monroe County Mental Health courts, as well as the county Road to Recovery initiative.

“We decided to do a combined graduation to showcase the efforts of all of the treatment courts and to bring everybody together under the auspices of one ceremony,” said Kimberly VanCamp, coordinator of the treatment courts; 63 will graduate.

Among them will be 16 who have successfully completed the Judicial Diversion Program, which was started in October 2009 following passage of the Drug Law Reform Act of 2009.

The law, signed by Gov. David A. Paterson April 7, 2009, revamps the strict Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. It significantly changes the sentencing structure by eliminating mandatory minimum terms and restoring judicial authority, allowing judges to sentence non-violent Class B, C, D and E felony drug offenders to treatment programs.

“It allowed a number of offenders to participate in treatment courts that were not eligible previously,” VanCamp said.

They were not eligible for treatment because the law mandated they go to prison, said Judge Patricia D. Marks, presiding judge of the Judicial Diversion Program. “The difference is these felonies are cases that never got to drug court because they were going to state prison if they got convicted.”

Each successful participant completes a number of requirements under judicial supervision, including one year of sobriety, successfully completing an alcohol or drug treatment program, getting a high school diploma or a GED (general educational development) certificate, being gainfully employed full time or a full-time college student and — unique to the Judicial Diversion Program —completing a minimum of 14 hours of community service.

“It’s a money saver,” Judge Marks said. “It saves money because in lieu of prison, people are restored.”

She said treatment and recovery is much less expensive than incarceration. Calling the program a lifesaver and family saver, she added that many of the people who apply say their lives were pretty bad and that their families would have nothing to do with them. She said they’re moving from being involved with drugs and alcohol to being involved with their families.

The law also allows for diverting defendants charged with certain other crimes who have a substance-abuse problem. For instance, some crimes such as burglary or forgery are not directly drug related, but may have been committed to support a drug and/or alcohol habit.

The prosecutor’s consent is required to divert a second violent felony offender, persistent violent felony offenders or someone who has a violent felony conviction in the past 10 years or a Class A felony drug offense.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, headquartered in Virginia, 80 percent of all offenders abuse alcohol or other drugs, 50 percent of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted and 60 percent of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs.

VanCamp said 386 people were screened for eligibility in the Judicial Diversion Program in its first year, ending Oct. 6, with 184 accepted. Completion varies depending on individual treatment plans.

Some participants already completed or were working on some of the requirements at the time they were accepted. Twenty people were unsuccessful and sentenced to prison. The rest are still actively involved, working toward completion.

Upon completion, their cases are re-evaluated and they may be granted a discretionary dismissal of their charges, get a conditional sealing of their records or have their felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor count with a non-jail sentence.

Of the 202 remaining applicants, 140 were not eligible. Judge Marks denied admission to 32 individuals and 30 who were eligible decided not to participate.

The ceremony Friday will include 36 people from the drug treatment court which was founded in 1995 by the Hon. John R. Schwartz, supervising judge of Rochester City Court and a founding member of the NADCP. The first drug treatment court in the state, it has had more than 1,600 graduates and 120 drug-free babies born to participants.

The graduation also includes 18 people from the mental health court, which has had 146 successful graduates since it was created by Judge Marks in January 2003.

Judge Teresa D. Johnson presides over the drug treatment and mental health courts.

There are also five graduates of the Road to Recovery program, which works with individuals who have a pending non-violent felony charge related to their addictions and who need intensive residential treatment for chemical dependency.

Diverting defendants began in 1989 when the first drug court was established in Miami. More than 2,400 drug courts nationwide serve more than 120,000 people annually.

“Having been a judge through a time when courts did not have these options available, it certainly is the direction we should be in and looking toward solving the court problem rather than warehousing people,” said Judge Marks, a former prosecutor who has been on the bench since 1984.

“Based on the short history we have of 20 years, it’s not just affecting current lives, but future lives. Treatment is progressing and these courts are becoming part of the future. They can change the landscape related to the criminal justice system,” she said.

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