“I'd Definitely Be Dead:” Recovering Heroin Addict Credits Diversion Program With Saving Life

The U.S. Justice Department is studying Vermont's court diversion program

The U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice is funding a research project examining a pretrial diversion program in Chittenden County, Vermont's most populous county. The Rapid Intervention Community Court is a voluntary program founded on the belief many criminal suspects aren't bad people, they just make very bad choices because of addictions or mental health issues.

The program's primary approach is to help speed addicts into drug treatment, betting if they can get sober, the root cause of their crimes would be eliminated. Participants also have to attend crime impact awareness classes, go before restorative justice panels, and make restitution, but they can avoid a conviction or prison term.

"I think that's really going to be a national model," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who pioneered the RICC in 2010. "We've got to take away the stigma and shame of mental illness and addiction."

The research project, which involves researchers from the Center for Court Innovation, the RAND Corporation, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the Police Executive Research Forum, will examine the functions, costs, and results of the diversion program. Two other programs in the Midwest are also being studied, the Center for Court Innovation said.

"Although prosecutor-led diversion programs have been a part of the American legal landscape for several decades, there is little to no descriptive literature of the model and only sporadic impact evaluations of specific programs," the Center for Court Innovation said in a news release. "Findings will meet the field's urgent need for descriptive documentation of the full range of contemporary program models as well add determining which types of programs are or are not likely to produce which types of impacts."

Donovan pointed to figures compiled by the Vermont Center for Justice Research that showed only 7.4 percent of participants who successfully completed the rapid intervention program ended up being convicted of another crime. Participants who failed the program had an approximately 25 percent rate of reconviction, Donovan said.

Nationally, recidivism rates have topped 40 percent in the traditional court system, observed Emmet Helrich, the leader of the four-year-old RICC.

"I think that we can enhance our public safety if we get people into treatment, get them healthy, get them stable," Donovan told New England Cable News. "That's the best form of public safety."

"I've been an addict my whole life," said Melissa, a young woman from Chittenden County whom NECN agreed to not identify by last name. "I feel like I'm a normal part of society now."

Melissa said she is now starting a new chapter thanks to the RICC, after believing the story of her life could've had a tragic final page. She sought drug treatment and is currently in recovery from opiate addiction, she said. "I'd definitely be dead," she said. "And that's the reality of this epidemic."

Heroin landed her in the Rapid Intervention Community Court, which is housed in the traditional criminal courthouse in Burlington. Melissa had gotten caught shoplifting, to afford drugs. A several hundred dollar-a-day habit makes you do lots of things you regret, she said.

"You don't care about anything but the drug," Melissa said. "People never understand what it's like to be an addict unless you're addict."

Helrich, a retired Burlington Police Department lieutenant with extensive experience in drug cases, said he works to bring compassion to his job. "What we try to do here is show them that we really care," Helrich explains.

Helrich scours court dockets and takes referrals from attorneys and investigating offers to identify suspects who are facing low-level charges, like trespassing or stealing from stores. Violent crimes, crimes involving firearms, and DUIs are some of the charges that disqualify someone from taking part in the RICC, Helrich explained. He often directs those folks to his office before they even see a judge to assess how to help them and how much of a risk to the community they pose.

"There's not a cop living who would tell you this 'war on drugs' is working. It's almost cliché now-- everyone knows it's not working," Helrich told NECN. "There are still a lot of police officers who are a little bit reticent. But for the most part, they get it. Treatment is the way to go."

Opiate users have made up about 35 percent of Helrich's more than 1400 cases since 2010, he said. In June, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., expanded Donovan's diversion model to other Vermont counties, looking to combat the heroin and prescription pill addiction crisis Shumlin says is driving much of the crime in the state.

"It's not condoning drug use, it's not being soft on crime. It's taking a new approach that's actually smart on crime," Donovan said.

Donovan said another reason he wanted to embrace the approach is a long-term recognition that Vermont spends more money on its corrections budget, which is more than $140-million, than it does on supporting its public university and state colleges.

"It doesn't make sense to spend more money on the Department of Corrections on locking people up in the state of Vermont than we do on higher education," Donovan said. "That is not a value anybody supports or shares. We can do better, but it has to take a new approach; a new philosophy of looking at substance abuse as a disease, and try to bring about harm reduction to folks by getting them treatment in the community."

"With the criminal justice system seeing record-breaking caseloads and tightening budgets, jurisdictions around the country have begun to seek alternatives to traditional case processing as early as possible in the criminal justice process," the Center for Court Innovation's news release said. "Diversion programs enable criminal defendants to avoid a conviction through participation in services whose length and intensity is broadly commensurate to the alleged offense (often quite brief in low-level cases)."

The DOJ-funded research project will track compliance, one-year re-arrests, and will weigh the costs of administration versus outcome, the news release explained. It noted an overall goal is to collect information on the state of diversion models today.

"It definitely wouldn't have been good to have jail on my record, because nobody would hire me," Melissa said, expressing appreciation for the fact she did not end up with a conviction for the misdemeanor shoplifting charge due to her participation in the RICC diversion program.

Asked if she thought she would be sober today without the RICC, Melissa responded, "Definitely not. I'd probably be six feet under."

Melissa said she does worry about relapses while she's seeking long-term recovery, but said for now, she has all new friends, supportive family, and jobs she likes. Those should help her stay on the healthier path she found through the Rapid Intervention Community Court, she said. "I'm happy about that," she beamed.

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