CARMEL, N.Y. - Mahopac resident Jason Fell stood before Judge James Reitz in Putnam County Judicial Diversion/Treatment Court last January and bowed his head.
“I can tell you first hand that addiction has taken me down lower than I have ever been,” Fell said during his drug court graduation ceremony. “Through the past couple of years I found a life worth living.”
Fell is one of the many success stories to emerge from “drug court,” a program that was established in Putnam County in 2002 as an alternate to incarceration for non-violent drug and alcohol offenders.
“Our journeys are all different, but we all ended up with addiction anyway,” Fell said. “We all have the same goal—to beat addiction and have a life worth living.”
The program is a coordinated team effort between Judge Reitz, the prosecution, defense counsel, probation department, sheriff’s department, social service and treatment professionals who actively intervene and break the cycle of substance abuse. It takes about two years, sometimes longer, for a participant to complete.
Fell’s graduation featured people from all walks of life. There were young people with typical childhoods and others who were brought up in less than stellar conditions, as well as a successful seasoned professional, and Fell—a war hero.
Fell was a U.S. Marine who served from 1990 to 1996, when he participated in combat in Operation Desert Storm, as well as in Somalia. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he decided to re-enlist and was honorably discharged in 2008. He had no prior history of chemical dependency until he was wounded in action and was prescribed opioid medications to treat the pain. He became addicted and toward the very end of his battle with addiction resorted to using heroin. Reitz said moving from painkiller addiction to heroin addiction is something he sees time and time again in drug court, and is at the core of the heroin epidemic that has plagued the region for several years now.
“When they run out of money [to buy painkillers] they go to heroin,” Reitz said. “Heroin is very cheap. Sometimes [dealers] give it away for free in order to get them hooked.”
Reitz has overseen the drug court since 2007. Prior to that he worked as a defense attorney, and then as a Carmel town justice, and he saw first-hand the good that the program could do.
“I brought people into it as a defense attorney,” said Reitz, who resides in Mahopac and is a 1981 Carmel High graduate. “I have worked with several people who came through it and graduated and are successful today.”
Reitz said the idea behind the Diversion/Treatment Court is to treat addiction as a medical problem and not as a criminal issue, although offenders are still held accountable for their actions.
“They idea is to hold them accountable while keeping them out of jail so they are out there paying their bills and taking care of their kids,” he said. “We are treating them with healthcare professionals. It’s far-reaching. Not too many get better when they come out of jail where they are not being treated properly.”
Reitz said that the drug court system understands that there will often be relapses and setbacks and accommodates for those.
“It’s a minimum two-year process if everything goes perfectly. If there are no relapses, they move on,” he said. “But inevitably there are issues and it could take up to five years depending on the nature of the case. But if they keep violating they will go to prison or die of an overdose.”
The key, Reitz said, is that the court realizes that not everyone is the same so there is no one specific approach to rehabilitation.
“It’s a very difficult situation and every case is different. There is no cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “If it can be treated, we get them to a professional and [find out] whatever will work for them. [The offenders] all come from different walks of life.”
Reitz said that an offender’s treatment program could be altered if it’s not working.
“We work on graduated sanctions,” he explained. “Maybe a change in treatment like [going from] in-patient instead of out-patient would help. We can change treatment recommendations or maybe add an ankle bracelet or community service; there are many things at our disposal.”
The Putnam County drug court, in fact, has been so successful it garnered the attention of NBC producers who were putting together a five-part documentary series on drug addiction in America called “Hooked: America’s Heroin Epidemic.” (youtube.com/watch?v=pTl87JUhePE) Reitz and his drug court were featured in two of the episodes and the piece was recently awarded an Emmy award.
Reitz said he had to convince some county officials to approve the court’s participation in the show, but ultimately it helped promote what the court was doing and the problems it was solving.
“Nobody had a clue what was going on, but since then, it’s amazing the number of people who are calling and trying to find out what we are doing [with the drug court],” the judge said. “Can you believe it won an Emmy? I was shocked; it was unexpected.”
Reitz said he is now working with the state of Connecticut to help officials there develop a program similar to Putnam County’s. He noted that some neighboring counties also employ drug courts, but how they are administrated can vary.
“They all have individual treatment courts and some take it seriously and some don’t and their courts are not very active,” he said.
County Executive MaryEllen Odell has been an advocate for the drug treatment court since she took office in 2011. She made the drug treatment court coordinator position a full-time county position after Albany cut the funding. She also attends the graduation ceremonies every month and said she is gets inspired by the stories of those who complete the program.
“Every person who graduates from the drug treatment court has a story,” Odell said. “To hear about the obstacles each one overcame and the steps each one took to be a productive member of society confirms my belief on the importance of education and treatment.”
State Sen. Terrence Murphy, who was named chair of the state Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, was also impressed with the program.
“This type of initiative needs to happen everywhere,” he said. “Addiction knows no boundaries. It hits people of any ethnicity, age, gender or profession. We need to do whatever we can to get the people who suffer from addiction the help that they need and make our penalties for traffickers much stricter.”
Fell is an example of the diverse nature of the drug court participants and he credits its staff with helping him turn his life around.
“I know you say that we, the graduates, did it ourselves and that I saved my own life, but all of you, the drug treatment court team, were a big part of saving my life,” he said.