I would like to respond and expand upon issues relating to the article ["The Problem with Diversion Programs: Should cops and the courts be gatekeepers for addiction and mental health treatment?" by Brian Sonenstein] published in the Phoenix [on March 22, 2018] which questions the role of diversion court programs.
I have been the defense attorney sitting on the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court (CODVC) since 2011. This Court is designed to get help for people who have engaged in criminal conduct but struggle with mental health issues and substance use disorders. These are individuals who have suffered from childhood trauma, poverty, broken families, unrelenting and life-breaking addiction; but they have committed crimes because their mental illness is untreated or their addiction drives irrational and desperate acts. As a member of this team, I have seen the lives of so many clients who have been in the Court, transformed.
A client of mine had spent over a decade of her life using drugs, dealing drugs to pay for her addiction, committing thefts and returning to jail. She has children but was not seeing them. When she was charged with drug trafficking, I worked to get her into the Court. She was admitted and spent over a year in the court getting treatment, finding stable housing and employment. She is now gainfully employed, sober, in a stable living situation and has a relationship with her children.
Despite what the previous article reported, the CODVC and other drug courts regularly allow individuals to come into the court who have committed serious felony crimes. They have to apply to get into the court, but if it’s clear to the team that the conduct occurred because of mental illness or substance use disorder and not true criminal thinking, the Courts will regularly admit them. To make the distinction more clear, drug traffickers frequently are excluded from the court because they are usually driven by criminal thinking and not substance use disorder or mental health issues.
The diversion Courts use a methodology that is focussed on treatment and recovery, not punishment. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals has developed evidence-based best practices which the diversion courts rely on and follow to help individuals get healthy. Best practices have instructed specialty courts to rely on a rewards and sanctions approach to guide clients to recovery. The purpose is not punishment, but behavioral change.
As a society we need to fund programs and services to get individuals who need it help or treatment. With better funding for services, even fewer individuals would find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. People whose only criminal conduct is using illegal drugs need treatment not incarceration. But when individuals are committing thefts, burglaries, destroying property, assaulting others because of these disorders, then the criminal justice system must become involved to protect victims and the public. The specialty courts are one response - though not the only response, nor the appropriate response in all situations. For the right cases, which are many, these courts are invaluable and save lives and families.
92 Pitt St.