CARMEL, N.Y. - There has been a major paradigm shift over the past several years in the way law enforcement and prosecutors deal with drug defendants in Putnam County.

The change in tactic is part of an ongoing effort to slow down the heroin and opiate epidemic that has been plaguing the region.

In a symposium on the judicial perspective of the drug problem in Putnam County held last week, law enforcement officials discussed the changing trends in drug-related prosecutions.

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“Things have changed in law enforcement and they’ve certainly changed in the prosecutor’s office,” said Putnam County District Attorney Bob Tendy. “We used to be proud to make an arrest, take it to trail, get a conviction, and send the druggie to jail. It’s not that way anymore. These are our kids—they are children, our parents, our grandparents, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles.”

The speakers at the event, Tendy, Putnam County Sheriff Donald Smith, and County Court Judge James Reitz, told the audience that the strategy now is to try and get the user help and on track to lead a more productive life rather than immediately turn to incarceration.

“Our main focus is still prosecuting the offender, but that doesn’t mean the same as it once did,” Tendy said. “Prosecutors are much more involved with the offenders; much more than I ever imagine when I first started in this business. If an addict can no longer help themselves, we are now part of a plan to help them. We are not in a rush to put them in jail, but we used to be.”

Smith said the county has adopted a three-prong approach to combat the heroin problem:

  • Education and awareness programs to help prevent drug abuse in the first place. “We can warn our young people that drugs are addictive and vicious and ruin your life,” Smith said.
  • Strict enforcement of drug laws – getting dealers off the street and “those who don’t get it, put them away even long longer.”
  • Drug treatment programs to “break this terrible affliction.”

Smith was referring the Putnam County drug treatment court, overseen by Reitz, which was featured on NBC News last year as one of the most successful alternatives to incarcerations in the country.

Tendy said the drug court is proving to be an important tool in combating addiction. He said it comes down to getting to know the defendant on a personnel level.

“We want to know about the person who was arrested,” he said. “Think about this: today we can talk to the investigator who made the arrest about the person they just arrested and ask if that person should go to jail, and very often they will say ‘no, don’t put that person in jail put them in drug treatment court.’ It was unheard of 30 years ago but it’s happening now. Group discussions after an arrest are now a standard part of what prosecutors do.”

And it’s paying dividends.

“It is working in Putnam County and I can tell you that without question,” Tendy said. “The most amazing thing about our program is the people who are in it. They understand they may relapse but they feel comfortable enough to tell the people who run the program, ‘I relapsed this weekend; I violated my contract.’ They understand the program is there to help them. Prosecutors aren’t rushing to the door, shouting, ‘Put ‘em jail! Put ‘em in jail!”

Smith said it’s important to humanize addicts if the heroin problem is ever going to be solved.

“There is probably not a single person in this room who has not lost someone to the scourge of drugs,” the sheriff said, noting that two out of every 1,000 Americans are addicted to heroin. “But his is not about statistics; it’s about individual people. It’s about sons, daughters, grandchildren. And even though this is a national problem, it’s a Putnam County problem; it’s a Hudson Valley problem.”

Smith that while Putnam County has the overall lowest crime rate in all off New York State, the drug crisis has still manage to penetrate its borders.

“There are 17 upstate counties that comprise 80 percent of the crime outside of NYC. Putnam is not one of them; in fact, we are the only one in the Hudson Valley that’s not,” he said. “We are proud of those things. We can have to the lowest crime rate – we solved that problem – but the drugs have penetrated the borders of beautiful pristine Putnam County. It kills people. It kills our children, our grandchildren; it kills our friends. We need to take a look at how that (having the lowest crime rate) happens because that’s how we are going to solve [the drug] problem too.”

It will be a tall order, Smith admitted, revealing Putnam County statistics for overdose deaths over the past five years:

2011: six overdoses – all due to drug intoxication; one mixed with heroin

2012: 20 overdoses – four mixed with heroin – one was heroin alone

2013: 14overdoses – three mixed with heroin; two were heroin alone

2014: 11 overdoses – five were mixed drug intoxication; one mixed with heroin; three were heroin alone

2015: 13 overdoses – three included heroin; one was heroin alone

Smith said no overdose deaths have been reported in 2016, but they are still awaiting some toxicology reports.

“We work hard every day to stop the flow of drugs into Putnam County,” he said. “We have a hard-working Narcotics Enforcement Unit that gets drug dealers off the street. In fact, they have been so successful that many drug dealers won’t even come in to Putnam County. Unfortunately, many of the people who use drugs are buying their drugs outside of the county.”

Smith said that he too supports the drug court.

“Many of these people want to get out; they want help. But these drugs are vicious,” he said.

He wants legislators on both the state and federal to increase funding for programs like Putnam County’s drug court and for increased manpower to bolster investigations and enforcement.

“I am putting out a clarion call to all lawmakers at a national and state level that this is a national crisis,” he said. “All government officials, please fund these programs to the maximum extent possible. We need your help.

“I call on parents to keep the faith; we have to keep fighting this battle and sometimes that means even call in law enforcement and maybe let your child spend some time in jail,” he said. “If you bail him out, by five o’clock he’s going to be back out buying drugs.”

Tendy said that while he is proud of the drug court and those who have made it through it and turned their lives around, no one should interpret that as the county is soft on drugs.

“If you are delivering drugs to our neighborhoods or have a deal with a doctor to buy hundreds of pills and sell them for a profit; or if you are selling while you’re in treatment court – that’s a mortal sin and as a prosecutor I can tell you we are going to do everything we can to put you in jail for a very long time,” he said. “There are consequences to what you do and there is a purpose to incarceration.”

Reitz said the drug court and programs like it are an attempt to change the culture and the way society thinks about addiction.

“We want to change a culture for our kids, figure it out and stop them from dying,” he said. “Tonight, you have heard about a major change in culture for our legal system. Can you imagine a person facing 18 years in state prison...coming in and becoming honest with law enforcement and the treatment court team? We don’t want to punish you – we want to help you. We do make a difference; we do save lives. Our recidivism rate is down to 12.5 percent for those who complete the program after two years.”

He told the leaders of Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, which sponsored the symposium, that groups such as theirs are having an impact.

“Don’t think for a minute you are not making a difference,” Reitz said. “I can tell you that people are still dying from opiate overdoses, but many people have been saved by the work this organization does and the work people in law enforcement are doing. Do you realize if it wasn’t for drug treatment court many of these people would be dead? Every person who is empowered by groups like these can somehow find the strength to carry on and get the support they need.

“We never know who is going to make it who will survive,” the judge added. “We don’t have all the answers. But working together we can solve the problem. There is no reason why we can’t do it.”