04/22/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Brooklyn Treatment Court: A Second Chance for Drug Offenders


In a Brooklyn courtroom on a Spring morning, something grabs your attention. It's not a stern judge banging a gavel. It's the sound of erupting applause. It starts out softly and builds to a thunderous crescendo. It's the kind of enthusiastic clapping that makes you sit up and want to cheer as well. Is it possible you might have slipped into a Broadway theater by mistake? Not at all. The ovation is being led by a beaming Judge Jo Ann Ferdinand. A drug offender has just finished the first phase of a model substance abuse treatment program.

As the applause subsides the judge hands a certificate to the young man standing before her. He has now been "clean and compliant" for four months. "You have made the choice to stay clean," the judge tells him. "When you do the right thing, you make it look easy" she says. The onlookers -- many of them family members, supporters and court personnel -- stand up and applaud some more. It's just another day in Brooklyn Treatment Court. It was begun by Judge Ferdinand in 1996 as an alternative to jail for non-violent drug offenders in Brooklyn. It was the first such court in New York City.

John Rodriquez, 56, a strapping father of nine children and 15 grandkids was one them. He remembers snorting his last bag of heroin at the stroke of midnight December 21, 1996. As he began to get the "shakes," he says he made a vow to turn his life around. "After that day I turned and looked at my family and told them I had to get my life back" he says. Judge Ferdinand gave him a chance to enter the court ordered program of treatment, counseling, monitoring, incentives and tough sanctions. Rodriguez "graduated" two years later. He's been drug free ever since. "I was the worst son any parent could have,' he says. "Judge Ferdinand gave me the opportunity to get my mother back in my life again," he continues. "And when she did come back to me she only lasted two years." His eyes mist over as he recalls his mom's death. For a "kid from the streets" who had been in and out of jail since he was 16 (for using and dealing heroin and crack cocaine) it was a tough lesson. "It still bothers me to this day," he says. "But every time I see Judge Ferdinand, I'm always telling her, you're my mother now and I appreciate it" Rodriguez adds.

I spent a day in Brooklyn Treatment Court recently and spoke with judges, staffers and former addicts about an innovative and far-reaching program that is part of a national trend. As of June of 2012, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) reports there are 2,731 drug courts in about 1,500 counties across the country. And the number is growing."The courts have a tremendous impact on crime, reducing substance abuse and saving money," says Chris Deutsch, the NADCP's director of communications. Before 1996, Judge Ferdinand says, the prevailing wisdom was simple. If you couldn't stop people from using drugs and committing crimes -- you just locked them up. "If it was your first felony, you went to jail for something like three to four years. If it was your second felony, you went to jail for four and a half to nine years," she sighs. "And despite the harshness of the laws people were still using drugs,selling drugs, going to jail, coming out and doing it again and again," the judge says. "It was clear to anyone working in the system that what we were doing wasn't working."

Taking a cue from a program started in Miami in the late '80s to attack a growing crack cocaine epidemic, Judge Ferdinand -- along with New York's Center for Court Innovation (CCI) -- had an idea. What if the court launched a treatment program based on supervision and accountability? What if it found a way to help non-violent drug users become useful contributors to society -- rather than sentencing them to jail? "The difference in what we were doing is that the court precipitated it," she says. "The way it was in the past a defendant would say to his lawyer -- why do they want to send me to jail? I'm a drug addict," she adds. "We said, we aren't waiting for you to come to us and say, you are a drug addict. We believe that if you are a drug addict who is committing the crime, you're going to keep committing it until you deal with the addiction."

But Miami wasn't New York. Judge Ferdinand wanted to tailor the program to the challenges of drug offenders in the city. She believed they used drugs as a result of "trauma" in their lives. They "self-medicated" to numb feelings associated to traumatic events. Back in 1996, remembers Judge Ferdinand, "we didn't use the word 'disease'" when referring to drug addiction. But studies changed the perception. "The drugs changed the way the brain operated and once you understand that, you can no longer say we give you one chance," she says.

So Brooklyn Treatment Court (BTC) initiated "phases" in their unique program. "The phases are identified as choice, change and and challenge," explains clinical social worker Joseph Madonia, the director of BTC. A tall imposing linebacker-type figure , Madonia appears respected by the drug offenders he sees each day. One referred to him as "Big Joe." "Each phase is approximately four to six months depending upon the charge," he says. "So someone can complete the program in 12 months, if they progress through the phases without an infraction," he says. "However in most cases that doesn't happen because we are dealing with addicts," he adds.

"Addicts test their limits," he says. "They have a difficult time being honest about their addictions. When they test their limits they have distorted boundaries which can lead to relapse," Madonia adds. Rodriquez was a perfect example. He remembers buying and snorting heroin from a drug dealer pal in the bathroom of the court building minutes before an appearance before the judge. He didn't realize a staffer at the urinal witnessed it all. "When I faced the judge she asked me if I was clean. I said yeah," he recalls. Then the judge opened a door and the staffer walked in. "Do you recognize this guy?" Judge Ferdinand asked him. Oops. Rodriquez realized he was busted.

Still for drug offenders who finish the program, the "success" rate appears impressive. "At any time we can have 380 to 430 active clients," Madonia says. Our success rate -- our recidivism rate is under 10 percent, which is one of the lowest in the nation. On the average "our success rate in drug court is 74 percent and in Veteran's Treatment Court, it is 78 percent."

Veterans treatment Court is another innovation of BTC under Madonia's direction. It's a program designed specifically for vets caught in drug offenses. The court treats addiction as a disease and like the other court, offers an array of rehab possibilities and social service to keep vets out of jail. Judge Michael Brennan, a former veteran himself, presides over the court. The jovial judge, who reminds one of Spencer Tracy in his heyday, served in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1971 (including a stint in Vietnam). He says veterans fight with addiction after deployment. Drugs can be a way to deal with the stress of war. "I have Vietnam vets, I have Iraq and Afghanistan vets, I have female vets," he says. "We have a carrot and stick approach with a reward system of recognition certificates where I actually come off the bench and present (it)," the judge says. And I salute the veteran, just to reinforce it."

I sit in the jury box as Judge Brennan presides. A veteran faces the judge as Margarita Fournier, a charismatic resource coordinator, relays the offender's progress in the crisp manner of a seasoned attorney. "Judge, Mr. Gonzalez (not his real name) has persevered. He has tested clean and attended his outpatient program several times a week," she says. The judge addresses the veteran. "You are a Marine" Brennan says. "Once a Marine -- always a Marine." With that Brennan descends the steps of his perch and walks directly to the offender. "We all know this is not easy." With that he salutes. Once again we hear the sound of applause in the courtroom. Here drug offenders are treated with respect.

Back in his office Judge Brennan explains that veterans are sometimes ashamed of their addiction and too proud to admit it. His court assigns mentors, former veterans themselves, to counsel the offenders and offer encouragement. "I also feel that I'm a mentor," Brennan says. "I'm a veteran. And I'm sitting up here in a black robe but I'm going to come down to your level as a brother and sister and work with you." The judge shows me the shiny gold medallions or coins the veterans receive after graduating. On one side we see an American eagle and the words "Veterans in Recovery." On the other side, the coin reads "I came with hope and worked and learned. I have a new life -- a life that I've earned."

While some critics have blasted drug courts as soft on crime and a costly alternative to jail, statistics show something else. According to a report provided by the BTC, the cost of keeping an inmate in New York State prison for one year is about $55,000. The cost of most outpatient drug treatment runs from $2,700 and $4,500 per person per year. And the cost of residential drug treatment is $17,000 to $21,000 per year. That's still less than half the cost of throwing a drug offender in jail. "There is a misperception that drug courts coddle their clients or give them special treatment," says Madonia. "I want people to understand we are doing just the opposite. We're expecting more of them. They're held accountable for their crimes and they're held accountable for their actions. Our goal is to teach them consequential thinking. So they are not avoiding legal implications at all, " he says. Chris Deutsch of the NADCP says the demand for drug courts is great. He says 1.2 million people in the American criminal justice system are eligible for such courts. "But they are not available everywhere,' he says. "The goal is to put a drug court in every county in the U.S."

But not all who work in the addiction arena are cheering drug courts. Attorney, psychologist and addiction expert Stanton Peele seems to scoff at the success of such courts in an article entitled "Drug Courts: You Think They Would Work." The story appeared in the Huffington Post Addiction and Recovery section June 22, 2010. "Finally offenders are not allowed to improve their lives gradually," he writes. "The disease model (which has strongly moralistic elements) views any use as a disqualifying failure, since abstinence is the be-all goal, and users are quickly violated." He concludes his article by saying:

By following the the medical model of addiction, which is American to its core, drug courts actually produce worse results than allowing courts to follow their usual insensitive and rough brands of justice.

But in Brooklyn Treatment court the "results" do not appear to be" worse. Madonia believes a recidivism rate under 10 percent clearly shows that.

But Debbie Downer pronouncements and critics jabs hardly sway veteran judges like Ferdinand. She's battled in the drug war trenches (dispensing tough sentences when required) for more than two decades. Ferdinand can be tough. But she can also dole out compassion when dealing with addicts who end up in her court. A velvet glove rather than an iron fist. And Judge Ferdinand says she is well aware that drug courts must push beyond abstinence for drug offenders. "We started with the idea of getting him (the drug user) off drugs as the goal," she says. "And at one point we got him off drugs and we said -- that was the easy part. Now they need something to do, meaningful work or something that makes them as much money as selling drugs," Ferdinand says. There's a pause as she catches herself realizing drug dealing can be more lucrative than some jobs. "Well even if it's not, it has to feel to them that it's a better choice," she says. "And the young ones need an education." BTC helps drug offenders obtain their high school equivalency diplomas, attend college and/or enter vocational training programs. And the biggest challenge? "Getting them off drugs remains incredibly difficult," she says softly.

Still the rewards can be satisfying -- rewards as simple as graduates coming back to court to give the judge a hug or asking her to officiate their marriages. "This is the most gratifying thing I can possibly do. It's all the people like the one who went back to college and got a degree and a job on Wall Street," she says. "These are kids who were going to prison. Once they went to prison you know what the arc of their life was going to be like."

John Rodriquez knows all too well. A life in jail is all he knew until Brooklyn Treatment Court changed that. He lives alone in a small apartment with a talking parrot and relishes his job making blinds. He looks forward to the holidays when he gets to see his nine kids including two sets of twins. His oldest daughter is 40 and his youngest son is 21. "If you wanted to change your life this (Brooklyn Treatment Court) was the right place to go." Rodriguez attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, is an usher in his church and a motivational speaker who speaks out candidly to youth groups about his drug past. "I tell people my story and keep a smile on my face," Rodriguez says as his parrot squawks in the background. "I want to go out and clean the world." And so, it appears, does Brooklyn Treatment Court -- one person at a time.