Hooked on Heroin: Beating addiction

By Matt Porter

October 29, 2013 Updated Oct 29, 2013 at 7:09 PM EDT

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton). An addict stands before judge William Pelella, and instead of pleading his case, he tells a story.

But rather than the pitfalls and plight, he tells of his success finding a job.

Another addcits comes up and tells him how she stayed clean for the last week.

One by one, each person stands and takes questions from the judge on their week, their work on their addiction, and their goals for next week.

They're not all happy stories.

In drug court as it's called, defendants aren't looking for a way out of jail, but a way up in life.

"What drug court tries to do is make sure they don't come back into the system," Pelella said.

Arrests have more than doubled in the last two years for Heroin, leaving more people facing charges.

The Binghamton drug court is an option for drug addicts who want to get clean.

And it's an opportunity for judges to do more than simply lock up an offender.

"Unlike normal court there's much more conversation between the judge and the defendant," Pelella said.

The court is one of 86 in New York, and more than 1,300 in the United States.

It's a collaboration of lawyers, doctors, and social workers.

"You care about them working on their recovery," Pelella said.

Besides drug tests and treatment, defendants join self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

The court provides help finding work and educational opportunities for qualified candidates.

Addicts must regularly come to court for a check in.

In the beginning they come once a week, and as they advance, they come in less frequently.

One former addict and graduate said it was the first time he felt he had a support network that could take him all the way through.

"So you feel comfortable when things aren't going good, to express yourself to them," he said.

The program takes at least one year with three stages.

Curfews and other rules are enforced strictly.

If a participant breaks the rules, they are held responsible by writing essays about their mistake and often providing community service.

If they can't keep the rules, they fail the program and end up back in jail.

Graduates say you can't fool the judge or any of the members of drug court.

"They've seen all of that," one graduate said. "You can't manipulate or work your way around their rules."

Only non-violent offenders qualify to be in drug court. Broome County Public Defender Jay Wilber said it's not for everybody.

"It's tough because it needs to be tough," he said.

But for those ready to change, Wilber said the court is a life saver.

"This is the only option my clients have that is working," he said.

Judge Pelella said each person they can get clean and working means one less expense on the county and the community.

"It puts a productive person into our community," Pelella said. "And that's the beauty and the purpose of drug court."

Some offenders question the year long "sentence" of drug court versus a few weeks or month in jail.

But graduates tell them drug court is always the quicker path.

"Drug court is a short cut to a happy life," a graduate said. "You don't have to be stuck in this addiction the rest of your life until you overdose and die or go to jail for the rest of your life. There's hope for change and a new way of life."

A 2013 study of the New York drug court system found that 1 in 2 people who entered drug court graduate within four years.

The report from the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center showed the re-arrest rate on average was at least 10 percent lower for those who went through the program than those who didn't.

(This is part two of a two-part series on Heroin addiction in the Southern Tier)