Sirens wail as the squad cars scream down the dirt road into the empty lot just a half-mile from the police station. Responding officers race out of their vehicles to the aid of an incapacitated driver behind the wheel. The unresponsive man is trapped in his car, in the throes of an unknown drug overdose, all while the vehicle is still in gear. Despite the danger, the officers are able to pull the driver out of the vehicle and start providing lifesaving medical assistance. Ambulances arrive on scene just a few moments later, and with the help he needs, the driver is stabilized.
While working as an intern in the Putnam County DA’s office, we had dramatic cases come in every day, but this one stuck with me.
Statements given by the officers on scene suggested that a standard inventory search of the minivan turned up something peculiar. Aside from drug paraphernalia, officers also found a woman’s handbag in the vehicle. This specific handbag, one that had been described to me just days earlier as a part of another case, was burgled from a locked car that same week. The driver had apparently smashed in the window of the parked vehicle just days earlier and stolen it.
The discovery of the handbag was evidence that the victim in the car was also the perpetrator of a recent crime. Worse yet, the stolen bag contained several credit cards, so the driver could have faced serious time in state prison if charges were stacked against him.
But thankfully, there was another avenue for this defendant. He’s home today with his family, sober, facing only probation. He’s a graduate of one of New York’s most successful restorative justice programs, a Drug Treatment Court.
While working for the Putnam (NY) County District Attorney’s office, I was introduced to the concept of drug treatment courts, or DTCs. Putnam County is a rural, small enclave of villages in southeast New York, bordering Connecticut. Putnam County’s population is only about 10% of the size of neighboring Fairfield County across the state line, but Putnam has something that many of its larger Connecticut counterparts do not have, a successful DTC program.
Problem-solving courts, like DTCs, have quickly become a monumental criminal justice innovation designed to reduce a nonviolent defendant’s criminal exposure, while also helping enhance public safety. While there are various types of specialized problem-solving courts, including MHCs (Mental Health Courts) and SOCs (Sex Offense Courts), the most common of these specialized programs are local DTCs.
These programs made their debut in an unlikely setting, Miami in the early 80s, a drug “hotspot,” so to speak. Since then, however, DTCs have spread across the country, and for a pretty good reason: they work. In New York in particular, “[t]he results have been overwhelmingly positive,” according to the NYS Office for Justice Initiatives. DTCs in New York state use an intervention process in which a participant voluntarily enters into an agreement with the prosecution and the court promises to impose a significantly reduced criminal penalty, if the participant is successful in the program.
DTCs were designed to break the harsh cycle of recidivism that so often plagues nonviolent drug offenders, and these programs have been largely successful across the country. In New York, 75% of DTC graduates are never rearrested for any reason, as opposed to criminal defendants who spend time in state prison, often reoffending and returning to prison. A 2017 document authored by the New York State Unified Court System Advisory Committee commended the success of the 124 existing DTCs operating in New York, and called for the creation of more DTC programs.
The success of New York’s DTCs has been a testament to programs in general, however Connecticut has yet to widely adopt the same kind judicial diversion programs.
Connecticut has significantly fewer DTC programs than New York. Currently, jurisdictions in Connecticut share one DTC between several towns or cities, or don’t have access to a DTC at all. The Support Court of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut is also technically a DTC, but it differs from other programs because the USDCC is a federal court of appeals, limiting its general applicability. A DTC program existed in Bridgeport in the early 2010s, but it was shut down in 2015.
Unfavorable data collected from the current DTCs in Connecticut has drawn some criticism to the programs, which has likely stunted the growth of DTCs in the state. As it stands, the failure rate — meaning termination from the program and resentencing — among DTC participants in the Connecticut programs has been consistently around 50% in recent years in both Danielson and New Haven. Bridgeport, when it was shut down, also had a success rate of around 50%.
Data collected from New York’s DTCs, even as far back as 2001, conversely shows success rates as high as 81% in Queens and 72% in the Bronx after one year in the program. The DTCs in New York were not “special” in their success necessarily, but because New York lawmakers have allowed these programs to fight through their growing pains, now DTCs clearly have benefits that outweigh any negatives.
Defendants in Putnam County, a tiny patch of New York with just 97,000 people living there, have access to a substantial restorative justice program that the 960,000 residents of the neighboring Fairfield region don’t. Hartford has 900,000 residents. What about them? How can we exclude Connecticut’s criminal defendants from the same programs which their peers have access to in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and around the country?
DTCs are no cakewalk for defendants, and even as these programs are expanded, some participants will unfortunately not be successful. But most defendants in Connecticut simply don’t have the option in the first place.
By denying Connecticut residents access to a DTC based on their geography, we are treating the same kind of nonviolent drug offenders as if we knew they would absolutely fail in any other jurisdiction’s DTCs. It is arbitrary that such a beneficial judicial program would not be on the table for many Connecticut residents, while New Yorkers and other Americans have been benefiting from these kinds of programs for years and will continue to do so.
Lucas Collins is a graduate of Trinity College (’23 Magna Cum Laude) with a major in Public Policy and Law and a minor in Music Production.