Drug Treatment Court marks 20 years as 'last line of intervention'

Oswego Drug Treatment Court on Monday hosted longtime presiding judge and process champion Judge James McCarthy, center. 

OSWEGO —  The Oswego Drug Treatment Court program celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday, honoring longtime organizers, officials and multiple graduates who have successfully moved on from a program often touted as “the last line of defense between people’s addictions and state prison.”

The program, first implemented in Oswego in 1999 and directed for years by now-retired Oswego County Supreme Court Justice James McCarthy, joins 123 other programs across New York state that aim to assemble a multidisciplinary team of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers and law enforcement in order to offer alternative sentencing where people struggling with addiction and mental illness can be provided with long-term recovery.

“It's the recognition that substance abuse is the major contributing factor for people to become involved in the criminal justice system, and courts have the power to address substance abuse in a meaningful way by using treatment as an alternative to incarceration,” said Oswego County Drug Treatment Court Coordinator David Guyer.

Officials said now more than ever, drug court is a crucial component of the justice system amid substance abuse epidemics sweeping the nation in recent years.

“We’ve been through many iterations of the ‘current’ crisis: cocaine, methamphetamines, bath salts, now both opiates and molly (a synthetic cathinone)  and additionally, the ever-present alcohol,” said Oswego City Court Judge James Metcalf, who has been the presiding judge for the program since 2003. “For 20 years, Drug Treatment Court has been a last line of intervention between people and their addictions and state prison.”

The program partners with three outpatient treatment providers: Farnham Family Services, County of Oswego Council of Alcoholism and Addictions (COCOAA) and Harbor Lights Chemical Dependency Services.

Tedd Stiles, program director at Harbor Lights, said his organization offers multiple services to outpatients, including relapse prevention programs, education groups, adolescent programs and referrals to other medical facilities.

Identifying addiction as a codified disease, Stiles said, helps with treatment and eventual rehabilitation. He noted addiction is a disease registered by the International Classification of Diseases — a study backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Incarcerating them won’t help them overcome this disease,” Stiles highlighted. “It’s only going to intensify the symptoms.”

More than 2,200 patients have been referred to the program through the local judicial system, according to Guyer, though slightly more than half have actually entered.

“Of the 950 people that have completed the program, it's almost a 50-50 split of successful and unsuccessful completions,” Guyer said. “The percentage of successful completions has dropped over the years from 55 percent to the current 50 percent rate.”

The latest class to graduate from the program in August had eight participants and the next class is scheduled to complete their curriculum in November.

“We’ve had incredible success stories — people who have gone on to have successful businesses, advanced degrees, good paying jobs and families reunited,” Judge Metcalf said, reflecting on the graduating classes he has supervised over the years. “We’ve also had great disappointments — people who couldn’t overcome their illness and succumbed to their addiction, most of whom end up in the state’s Department of Corrections.”

Though difficult to pinpoint a single factor that has helped diminish the rate for the successful completion of the program, Guyer said he attributes the opioid crisis ravaging central New York as one of the contributing issues.

Earlier this summer, The Palladium-Times reported an influx of 29 million pain pills flooding the streets of Oswego County over the six-year period between 2006-2012, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.

“When I started, I remember who our first heroin addict was,” Guyer said. “Approximately 15 years ago, we began seeing the first signs with opioid addictions: stolen prescription pads, forged prescriptions, nurses dispensing themselves medication — again, little actual heroin use.”

Further, Guyer called heroin “by far the worst drug we’ve dealt with,” noting a shortage of painkillers made the substance a desirable item due to its low cost and ease of access.

“At this point I have seen some stabilization of the problem,” he said. “However, it still remains a significant problem in the community.”

During Monday’s drug court session, McCarthy was honored for his commitment and dedication to the program and as the first overseeing judge. The former judge — who retired at the end of last year and was recently appointed to the state’s Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE) — received a certificate honoring his years of service and noted the program’s success begins and ends with prosperous graduating classes.

Metcalf qualified the program as a “financial boon” to the state due to the increase in prison population.

“It protects against addicts being made into true criminals in the prison system,” he said. “It helps our fellow citizens when they need it most, all at a cost that is much cheaper than putting them in prison and throwing away the key.”

Looking toward the future of the program, Guyer said the focus of the overseers should stay centered on the repercussions and the causers of criminal activity due to substance abuse.

“I think the most important thing we need to focus on is not the substance the person is abusing, but the disease of addiction itself,” he said. “We need to try and address the underlying issues that lead to this; issues such as trauma, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.”

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