Three defendants sat at a table in a small office inside the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, describing their addictions to heroin and prescription opiates.
The group included a 25-year-old law school student who was found passed out in his car with a bag of heroin; a 21-year-old hostess from a Church Street restaurant who said she routinely drove to New York City to support a $500-a-day heroin habit; and a 31-year-old mother who lost custody of her four children because she got caught stealing to finance a prescription-drug addiction.
All three were arrested in the past year, but none is facing criminal charges, thanks to a program recently cited by Gov. Peter Shumlin as a model for a more effective and humane approach to drug-related crime: Chittenden County’s Rapid Intervention Community Court.
“I just needed somebody, one person, to give me a chance and have a little bit of hope,” said the Burlington mother, Jessica, who, like her fellow defendants, requested anonymity for this article.
It looks like many more Vermonters will be entering similar programs: What began four years ago as an experiment to reduce recidivism in Chittenden County is now being hailed as a example for others. Addison and Lamoille counties have recently launched their own versions of RICC; programs in Rutland and Franklin counties are scheduled to come online in early February.
In his recent State of the State address, which focused squarely on Vermont’s opiate problem, Shumlin proposed investing $760,000 to further expand the program, which treats drug crime as a public health issue as well as a criminal justice challenge.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan pioneered the rapid-intervention approach — which allows addicts to avoid prosecution by agreeing to treatment shortly after arrest — and has built a statewide profile based on its success. Donovan says there is one fundamental difference between his program and the traditional criminal justice system: RICC works. A recent independent study showed that its graduates were significantly less likely to reoffend than other wrongdoers.
“It’s looking at the criminal acts as a result of a disease. We’re trying to treat the disease,” said Donovan. “You want change in a system that doesn’t like to change, you have to push the envelope a little bit. How do you get people on board? You take a risk and let the numbers speak for themselves.”
But even Donovan acknowledged that implementing rapid-intervention programs in other counties could prove to be difficult. Located in the state’s most populous county, his operation benefits from easy access to treatment and other services, job opportunities, and public transportation — all of which are harder to come by in more rural settings.
“What I think the public won’t understand is how somebody can go rip off an ATM, be caught by the police and not have traditional consequences,” Lamoille County State’s Attorney Joel Page said of his constituents in central Vermont, where he just launched a RICC. “How can people get nothing for doing something significant?” he asked, then answered his own question: “What we’re trying to do is break the cycle. We can do the same thing that’s not working, or we can do something different.”
Prosecutors, police, defense attorneys and treatment providers generally agree that courts spend too time much dealing with defendants who commit crime after crime while in the grip of substance-abuse problems. In recognition of that pattern, the rapid-intervention program primarily accepts repeat offenders who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes and have an underlying addiction. If they successfully complete a 90-day treatment plan of counseling, drug treatment and life skills training, they can walk away. Case closed.
If they bail out, they face the original charge.
“The key is, don’t burden them with the court case,” said Emmet Helrich, a retired Burlington police officer who manages RICC. “I always say, ‘Forget about the court case. Get healthy.’”
But not everyone gets accepted into the program. The centerpiece of RICC is the risk-assessment process officials use to determine if someone is a good candidate. Developed by university researchers in Ohio, it probes a potential participant’s family support, living situation, substance-abuse history, friends and behavioral patterns.
RICC has handled 1,221 cases since launching in September 2010 and currently has 95. While the group does not keep track of the percentage of people who are rejected, last week four people were deemed unsuitable, Donovan said, because of concerns that arose during screening.
The success rate? The Vermont Center for Justice Research examined 654 people who entered Chittenden County’s rapid-intervention program between September 2010 and December 2012. Only 7.4 percent of those who completed it were convicted of a new crime after leaving the program. Of those who didn’t make it through, 25 percent went on to reoffend.
“This study has shown that the RICC is a potentially effective program in reducing recidivism among participating offenders and warrants further research,” VCJR concluded in February 2013.
Bram Kranichfeld, director of the state’s attorney’s association, said that prosecutors in every other county in Vermont are mulling ways to create their own programs. Both Page and Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster are following Donovan’s lead, but with some significant tweaks to make their approaches more rural-Vermont-friendly. For example, most of the treatment services in Lamoille County are based in Morrisville, but Page expects many participants will come from the “hinterlands” and won’t have driver’s licenses or cars.
“This is a novel approach. Change can be difficult. There are always risks involved and there are people who look at these programs skeptically,” said Fenster, who launched an Addison County rapid-intervention program in November.
Fenster may be referring to the fact that state’s attorneys in Vermont are independently elected, which gives them autonomy but also makes them vulnerable to political pressures. There’s nothing worse for one’s rep than an addict doing something horrible while enjoying an alternative to incarceration.
“When I sit up late at night thinking about this, I get nervous, because it takes one person to screw up, and it’s on me,” said Donovan.
One way to minimize the risk: Donovan’s program is considered “pre-charge;” defendants are diverted before they ever appear in court. However, a state’s attorney could choose a “post-charge” arrangement similar to the more familiar court diversion and reparative justice programs. Under that model, participants are formally charged with a crime but offered the chance to complete treatment in exchange for a charge that can be reduced or dropped altogether.
That approach, which Kranichfield said Franklin County is considering, gives prosecutors the power to threaten more sanctions if an offender fails. It also leaves defendants with a criminal record.
The downside? It may move too slowly.
For all but the most serious crimes, defendants are cited to appear in court four to six weeks after they’ve been arrested. As Shumlin noted, experts say the most opportune time to convince addicts to get help is when their worlds have been turned upside down by an arrest. A month or more later, the defendant may not be as eager to accept a treatment-based deal.
After his arrest in August, the law student interviewed at Donovan’s office didn’t think he’d be allowed to return to school in Virginia. He believed his career was over. He jumped at the offer to join RICC, avoid a criminal record and get back to school. He has been clean since his arrest.
“I thought, Well, that’s it,” he said. “My therapist was like, ‘You’re so lucky you didn’t get popped in Virginia.’’’
“The pre-charge piece is absolutely based on the philosophy of the prosecutor,” said Robert Sand, the Shumlin administration’s point person in promoting alternative court programs.
Fenster has designed a compromise between pre-charge and post-charge approaches. In his program, the Addison County state’s attorney holds off filing a criminal charge for 90 days, the time it takes a defendant to go through the program. If the treatment is successful, he or she appears in court and is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge that comes with no penalties. But it still goes on that person’s criminal record.
“We wanted to try it out and be more incremental about it,” Fenster said.
Advocates say anything is better than the status quo. “Keep in mind, the traditional system is far more failures than successes,” Page said. “I don’t know if we can do any worse. I don’t know if there’s anything harder to change, but it’s worth a try.”