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A Personal Look At Drug Court and Community Sentencing

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This week, I have been writing about alternative sentencing and drug court. My perspective is shaped by experiences as a “community outreach” worker, witnessing the gaming that takes place when non-profits and private companies are granted fat government contracts with little oversight to monitor and provide therapy to offenders in the community. We are playing with fire whenever we turn over important government duties, like protecting the public, to private individuals – especially when there is no oversight.

Community control supervised by private companies and non -profits have become the status quo, however – and now community monitoring has become one of those things, in our twisted judicial system, that is increasingly viewed as a defendant’s right.

There is much more to say on the subject of drug courts, and I will try to get back to it at some point during May, “National Drug Court Month.” There have also been serious incidents lately, in Atlanta and elsewhere, involving people wearing ankle bracelets but committing crime nonetheless. In January, a man wanted for parole violations was spotted at a traffic stop in Alpharetta, Georgia. He tried to flee after a police officer saw his ankle bracelet, and the officer shot him. Derrick Yancey, the former DeKalb County, Georgia police officer charged with double homicide, is still missing after he disabled his ankle monitor and fled. Yancey managed to escape thanks to failures in the monitoring system set up through a private vendor in DeKalb County; failures by DeKalb authorities who were supposed to respond to the alarm – but mostly the failure of the judge who let him go free to await murder charges instead of holding him in prison, where any double-murder suspect belongs. In Southeast Atlanta, a paroled burglar was recently caught exiting a home he was burglarizing – wearing his ankle bracelet for another crime.

But despite the dangers and scams associated with community monitoring and alternative sentencing, there are successes too. A reader offers the following personal account. His observations about the system are more incisive than a hundred academic studies:

To say I had a “drinking problem” would not come close to describing my situation; it was like calling a field of kudzu “green-space.” I was convicted of DUI, while being a Habitual Offender – 3 DUI’s in 5 years. I was looking at a year, easy, in prison. My lawyer, on his own, had me “evaluated” by an “alcohol/substance abuse counselor.” Basically, he found that I drank a lot, and that I felt my main problem was that I was in jail. He and the attorney came up with a plan, and presented it to me as I was waiting to see the Judge. I was to be monitored with a device that would test my breath’s alcohol level; attend group therapy 2X/week; attend AA 3X/week; be on probation for 5 yrs. I was to pay all costs (which were roughly $650/month in 1994; I noticed during that time an ad for leasing cars, and noted I could have leased a Jaguar for what I was paying). The judge agreed, and I haven’t drank since.

Point is, that ‘proactive’ plan put forth by my attorney saved me: I doubt I would have survived a stay in jail, but if I had, I really doubt I would have stayed sober once out. I cannot say that this course should be normal, common, advised, for anyone else; but it worked for me. And part of the reason it did, was fear: prison was not an attractive option, for me. A couple of weeks sober in the county jail also enabled a few neurons to spark, which gave me enough sense to have some shame of my predicament. By the time of my trial, I was physically, mentally and spiritually ready to try to right my situation.

Now, you really have to experience jail to get how degrading incarceration is for all involved, inmates, staff, everybody. I like to say that of all the people I’ve come across there (numerous overnight to 28 day stays), many may not have been guilty as charged, but none were innocent, either. Probably half that I have seen are not affected, at all, by being locked up: 3 hots & a cot is better than they have been able to provide for themselves, despite all their scheming. Maybe 10% are remorseful, the rest are hoping for their bullshit lines to pull them through. The staffs always manage to make the smallest maneuver degrading, and I’ve found them to be meaner than all but a few inmates: cruelty for the f*** of it. Inept to the point that it has been rare that I have been called by my name at any of the 7/day roll calls. Pisses ‘em off big time when I don’t respond to a different name. My point here is I would find “therapeutic jurisprudence” to fit an extremely small segment of the perpetrator population.

I can also pass on my experience with “home monitoring.” That DeKalb deputy that shot his wife and yard man (no affair, the Latino was just at the wrong place, wrong time) had an ankle bracelet, but the monitoring co. didn’t notify the cops for, what? 12 hrs. after he cut it off? It’s an industry, and like all industries has its public face & PR, and the real world, which it only vaguely resembles. They try to do everything on the cheap (hey, it’s the American way), so the equipment, personnel and procedures are all suspect.

In my case, I was sentenced to home confinement, with an alcohol monitor. This machine was hooked up to the phone line, and had a phone receiver, dial pad, 2.5″ screen, and a tube. When the phone rang, I was to blow in the tube between audible beeps. I was to be home from 8PM to 8AM every day; calls would be random during that time. Most often, I’d get one call, say 9PM or 7AM. A couple nights, I got no call at all. I paid $100/wk. (1994) for the service. Same folks provided the group counseling I had to attend (2 nights/wk., $25/each). All went well, for about four months (I was also sentenced to 3 AA meetings/week. Group counselor was in AA, became a great friend/mentor/sponsor; that was his part-time gig).

So, one night, no call. Even though it had happened before, it made me nervous, so I checked the phone: the ‘on’ light was out! I jiggled the wire, and sure enough, it came on. I immediately called my probation officer (PO). He read me the riot act, telling me he knew I’d been fucking up all along, and was looking forward to locking me up (!!!). Who knows exactly where his attitude came from; I was doing all asked of me, and more, had always been respectful, and the first one waiting on him for my weekly appointments (to get in early, and then to work). When I told him of the bad wire, he didn’t give that any credibility, as he said he knew I had been out chasing women (that situation bothered me a heck of a lot more than it did him: Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a drunk on probation. Wanna go out for coffee while it’s light out? Not a real appealing resume, so I was just biding time, with that).

Next thing I did, call the phone company. Tech – small black guy (reference matters), nonplussed about the machine and its purpose – wrote out a tag stating that it did indeed have a short. Called the monitoring company, left message. Went to work, and with limited access to a phone, called who I could. Went to the AA meeting, and to my surprise, a few members consoled me, and gave me the contact info for a lawyer that was in AA. When I got home, there was a message from the PO that my trial date had been set.

That night, and for the next 90+ days/nights, the machine would ring every 45 min., give or take a couple min. Every night. All night. By the end of a week, my eyes were falling out of my head. At a month, I was an angry knot, walking. At 3 mos., I wanted to kill. Anything, anyone.

The week before court, the lawyer asked me what I wanted out of the case. All I want, I said, is for the PO to join me in a room with the door closed for 10 f****** seconds! Well, no Chris, that can’t happen. OK- I’ll do what I’m sentenced to, but I want that PO out of my life. I want the monitoring co. to admit that their machine may have a problem, and that they fix it if broken. And – they have to go back to the original calling schedule/frequency.

All this, because I noticed, while waiting for the lawyer to finish her business, that an article in the state law review went over a case where it was decided that a probationer only had to obey the judge’s written instructions; verbal instructions were not valid. None of my conditions, aside from monetary fines, were in the original order. We slam-dunked the pissant PO at court. About 12 AA’s were in attendance behind me, along with – the telephone repairman! We all went for coffee at Underground afterward, and I asked him why he showed. He told me the residents of the complex – 99% black, many old, most with kids – told him I looked out for all of them, standing up to the j*******s that tried to push them around.

So, the lessons to me personally were many, but as to the company – they were just assholes. They were pissed as hell at court – all for a shorted wire! Fix your g*****n equipment! I was facing 1.5 years in prison: they needed to spend 10 bucks!

The companies that dealt with me are now dissolved, but records are still there from the GA Secretary of State: In-House Detention Systems, Inc. was the monitoring company. GA Recovery Center- Larry Nolting was the principal there, and his in-laws ran In-House (a fact I was not privy to until my lawyer found it). Nolting later was principal for another corp. that appears to be the successor to In-House, as it was listed at the same address. This corporation dissolved in 2005. So, I’ve stayed sober longer than they stayed in business. But, a Google search showed his address as Jett Rd., which is big money. The Bell South Tech actually called In-House from my apartment when he figured out what was wrong (short in the wire); they tried to get him to say it was something I did.

Mission Creep: Burglars With Drug Problems. And Drug Courts With Burglar Problems. And Reporters With Truthiness Problems.

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Atlanta is not the only city where recidivists with long records of serious crime are being permitted to avoid jail sentences because they are also drug addicts. From the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, New York:

In a plea deal with prosecutors, a Groton woman charged with taking part in burglaries in three counties has been sentenced to time served, five years probation and ordered to attend drug court for local crimes.

Judge John Rowley sentenced Julianna Salerno, 30, on Friday after she pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary in Tompkins County Court. Salerno admitted that she waited in a vehicle and “acted as a lookout” for Daniel Samson, 25, of Groton, when he broke in and stole items from a building at Treman State Park.

Salerno and Samson were charged with six counts of third-degree burglary, four counts of third-degree criminal mischief, and petit larceny, a misdemeanor. . .

They were also linked to Cortland County burglaries at the Greek Peak Ski Resort and Hope Lake, and Cayuga County burglaries at Salmon Creek Sports, Grisamore Farms, Badman’s Bushel Baskets Produce, Ron’s Corner Store, Triangle Restaurant and Longpoint State Park, according to law-enforcement officials. [Ithaca Journal, "Groton Woman Receives Sentence," 4/27/09, fee for viewing]

More than a dozen burglaries, and this woman is being offered probation and community-based treatment, instead of conviction and incarceration, because she has a drug problem. This type of story, which plays out every day, severely challenges the conventional wisdom that our prisons are stuffed with otherwise innocent drug addicts serving long sentences for merely possessing drugs. Claims that prison populations have expanded because states are locking up mere addicts are not true either, as this chart on inmates from the Department of Justice clearly shows:

The problem, again, is lenient judges, not to mention a system so steeped in anti-incarceration ideology that the mere idea that someone might expect to go to prison for committing a dozen burglaries can no longer even be taken for granted. The judge who sentenced Salerno apparently felt the need to say out loud that there was some possibility that she might go to jail despite her addiction:

While acknowledging Salerno’s actions may have been a “drug-related crime spree,” Rowley told her that she’ll be facing incarceration if she doesn’t adhere to her probation terms and treatment programs.

In other words, Salerno was permitted to get away with at least a dozen crimes against others, but if she messes up in rehab, a crime against herself, then the state might decide get serious with her. Is it any wonder that people have a hard time believing that the justice system is there to protect the rights of anyone except criminals?

Drug courts were never supposed to be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people with long offense records. They were supposed to be used to divert first-time offenders whose primary offense was drug-related. But even the term “drug-related” has been twisted: now, apparently, any crime committed by a drug addict is “drug-related,” as the judge in the case above above uses the term.

Another example of abusing both the concept of drug courts and the concept of “drug-related” crime, from the Baltimore Sun — note the reporter’s empathy for the criminal, and his disturbing efforts to downplay his crimes:

Break-In Artist Finally Gets Into Drug Program

Peter Hermann | Baltimore Crime Beat

Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is finally getting the help that he needs.

This is no small accomplishment, as District Judge George M. Lipman made cle[a]r when he learned that the drug-addicted defendant suspected of fueling a plague of car break-ins in downtown Baltimore had been accepted into an inpatient treatment program.

“Hallelujah,” the judge said, a pronouncement not often heard from the bench, and certainly not from this jurist, who apologized several times for being too preachy during Friday morning’s docket at the Hargrove District Court in South Baltimore. He told one man, upset that being sent off to jail meant his car would be towed, “I don’t wipe people’s noses.”

No, the judge doesn’t wipe people’s noses, but that probably needs to be put into the record, just to be clear, because he otherwise plays head cheerleader for repeat felons, as does the reporter. The victims? Well, never mind them: insurance will cover their losses.

Here is reporter Peter Herman’s heart-wrenching account of the court’s efforts to “help” Syndor. Note the way Syndor’s crimes become “petty,” “nonviolent,” and things that “drive people crazy” in the reporter’s hands, as if he is writing about some kid bouncing a basketball against a curb, not a repeat felon breaking into people’s cars, actually committing violent crimes, and betraying an utterly frightening disregard for the law:

I first wrote about Sydnor back in February, painting the 40-year-old as the face of a problem that drives residents crazy and tourists out of the city. Day after day, police reports of car break-ins pile up from Federal Hill, around the Inner Harbor and to the far edges of Canton.

Cell phones used to be the prized catch, but now navigational devices, iPods and iPhones are all the rage, usually stolen by addicts seeking electronics to hawk for a quick buck to score a quick high, a never-ending cycle of car-to-needle-to-car that ends up costing us thousands upon thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, car window repairs and replacements for stolen items.

Sydnor is charged with breaking into two cars in January at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., and authorities tell me he’s suspected in other break-ins at garages at The Baltimore Sun and Mercy Medical Center on North Calvert Street. He has been in jail for the past three months awaiting word on a coveted, hard-to-get drug treatment slot, and his cases will be put on hold until he gets through the program.

Police have arrested Sydnor more than 100 times in the past 15 years and he’s been convicted dozens of times, mostly of seemingly petty, nonviolent offenses.

“Mostly of seemingly petty” offenses? What about the other ones? This isn’t journalism: it’s a mutual admiration club with three members: judge, reporter, and predator.

And these admiration clubs so frequently get out of hand, which is why I question one of the main tenets of drug court: that the judge and the offender form a relationship in which the judge takes a personal interest in the offender’s progress. Do we really need to be encouraging judges to be even more enamored of their “patriarchial/matriarchial” roles vis-a-vis criminals? Haven’t enough innocent victims of crime paid, with their lives, for these special moments of bonding, Hallelujahs, slap on the backs, and all?

Shouldn’t people like this be getting their drug and alcohol counseling in prison, as they’re serving time for their crimes?

Given how he reacted while sentencing Sydnor, the judge in this case might as well have been openly berating the public for its failure to leap to Sydnor’s aid by providing him with a bed, on demand, in a drug rehab center. Yet even a brief perusal of Sydnor’s incredibly long record indicates serial neglect on the part of Baltimore’s judiciary to protect the public from this man’s violence. In 1996, Sydnor was found guilty of assault (neither petty nor non-violent). Even though he refused to acknowledge his guilt and was found guilty, he was given only a suspended, one-year sentence — in other words, no time at all. He quickly ended up back in jail again, this time for second-degree assault, and received one year again, another example of judicial carelessness.

The record grows worse as time goes by. Drug dealing, narcotics dealing, felony theft. There are 147 separate court appearances in his record. Assault, second degree, in 2005, some 97 cases in? One month in jail. And this is what reporter Peter Hermann calls a non-violent, minor record? Have they lost their minds, or do they just despise the law-abiding public?

What do you call a 100+ time offender, appearing before Judge Lipman (who is, unsurprisingly, a former defense attorney)?

You call him a good candidate for drug court.