Working with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and the Legal Aid Society in May 1998, Administrative Judge Alfred Lerner established the new Queens Treatment Court, which offered drug rehab as an alternative to incarceration for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders.
The court celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding last Friday with a ceremony inside the courthouse.
Judge Marcia Hirsch, who has presided over the court since 2005, said the court has improved the lives of participants not only by offering substance abuse treatment and other wrap-around services, but also by helping them become productive members of society and their families.
Since the drug treatment court was established in 1998, Queens has also opened a mental health court in 2005, a driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) court in 2006, a drug diversion court in 2009, and a veterans court in 2010.
“In so doing, we helped reduce crime and improve quality of life in our communities,” Hirsch said.
Rather than entering plea negotiations with the defendant, the judge, assistant district attorney and defense attorney work together to decide which participants should go to treatment court.
In exchange for a guilty plea, the court then requires the participant to attend drug treatment at a community organization for at least a year. They also have to appear in court regularly, obtain a GED if they have no high school diploma and find a job.
If the participant completes the program, the court will vacate the plea, dismiss and then seal the case. If they do not fulfill the requirements, a mandatory sentence is imposed.
Justice Kenneth Holder was one of the founders of the Queens Treatment Court, back when he was the bureau chief of the narcotics trail division at the Queens DA’s office.
In the mid-1990s, in the aftermath of the crack epidemic, Holder noticed that there was an increase in the number of non-violent substance abuse offenders entering the court system.
According to Holder, there was a 40 percent increase in drug cases in the past decade, and 70 percent were people who were substance-abuse addicted.
“In recognizing the impractical scenario of jailing all of the nonviolent offenders, we looked to a better way of doing things,” he said.
Holder and Lerner traveled to Philadelphia, where there was a drug court that placed nonviolent offenders into treatment rather than jail. He recalled being “amazed by the program.”
In 1996, Holder applied for a federal grant to establish the drug treatment court, and successfully secured $5 million. He then put together a team to travel around the country and learn the best practices for Queens.
“In the end, we created what is now the best drug treatment court in the country,” Holder said.
Last week's ceremony not only served as a celebration of the anniversary, but as a graduation for program participants. The court invited alumni of the treatment and veterans courts to impart advice and share their stories of recovery.
Chandra Dragonov, who graduated from the Queens Treatment Court in 2000, said it was on Valentine’s Day 18 years ago when she realized she needed help.
After going for treatment at Samaritan Village, one of the court’s nonprofit partners, Dragonov got a GED, a marketable skill and a son. She was pregnant while in treatment.
Today, Dragonov works at the Next Step Resource Center in Staten Island as a recovery coach. She works with low-level drug offenders to help them overcome their drug-related issues.
“If it wasn’t for this court, I don’t know where I would be today,” she said.
Adam Friedman, who graduated from the treatment court in 2008, came into the program as a low-level drug dealer, the basis for “my own habit.” Friedman admitted he was using fatal substances.
“I was young and stupid and didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
But after going through the treatment program, Friedman set himself on the right path. He’s attending college now to be a high school biology teacher. More importantly, he’s celebrating two years of sobriety this month.
“It really changed my life,” Friedman said.
Jeffrey Lubin was a graduate this year of Queens DWI court. He said it wasn’t for the treatment court, he would’ve likely been sent to Rikers Island.
“I feel like I was treated more than fair. My crime was not alcohol, it was drinking and driving, but I never felt like a criminal,” he said. “They treated me as someone who needed to regain awareness of what alcohol is and that I had an addiction. That’s something I will continue to work on.
“I thank you for giving people like me and other graduates a chance to rehabilitate and get themselves on track again,” Lubin added.