Drug offenders will be offered a break
By Brent Curtis
Staff Writer | August 07,2014
A week after charging 27 people in the Rutland area with drug offenses, police and prosecutors are preparing to give seven of them a second chance as part of a strategy they hope will put a permanent dent in the city’s illegal drug market.
City and state officials are following the precepts of a strategy that worked to cut violent crime and drug trafficking numbers by more than half in High Point, N.C. They want to offer the seven accused drug offenders — all faced with felony offenses including, in most cases, selling heroin or cocaine — a chance for convictions on lesser offenses if they participate in the Rutland drug court, drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs.
Police have identified all 27 offenders arrested as part of a Vermont Drug Task Force roundup. However, police and prosecutors declined to identify the seven who will be offered leniency if they work under tight supervision to address their addictions.
All seven are slated to appear in Rutland criminal court Aug. 18 to answer to the criminal charges against them, said Rutland Police Chief James Baker.
Minutes before they go into court, the defendants will be visited by officials from the Rutland Drug Court — which usually bars those accused of felony drug charges from participating in their program.
They will also be approached by representatives from drug treatment programs, mental health counselors and other support services, who will describe the services available to help the alleged offenders recover from addiction.
Then, members of the Rutland City Police Department and Vermont State Police will enter the room to paint a picture of what will happen if the offer of help isn’t accepted.
“The message we’re going to be delivering to these folks is, ‘We care about you and want you to get better. We know you have a substance-abuse problem but now you’re involved in the distribution of heroin, and you’ll be looking at bigger charges in the future if you don’t change your ways,’” Baker said.
Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle said the accused don’t have to make up their minds right away. They can deny the charges against them Aug. 18.
He said prosecutors plan to request a court hearing a few weeks later to update the court on the status of the cases. By then, he said, the seven alleged offenders must decide whether to continue fighting the charges or plead guilty and enter the Drug Court.
They must agree to stay off drugs, refrain from committing new crimes and comply with other court requirements and supervision. If they fail, they will return to criminal court and be sentenced for the felony charges to which they pleaded guilty before entering the program.
If they succeed, the charges will be reduced. Doyle said prosecutors are still working out the details.
What sets these seven offenders apart from the other 20 isn’t immediately obvious by looking at the charges they all face.
The group of suspects who were arraigned Monday in the first wave of court appearances from last week’s drug arrests are all accused of the kind of felony drug sales, possession and accessory offenses that Baker and Doyle said will be faced by the seven defendants appearing in court Aug. 18.
The police chief said the seven were culled from the other offenders because of the nature of their criminal histories and personal profiles.
“They have no prior criminal history of violence or crimes that have had a significant impact on the community,” Baker said. “They’re low-level offenders who are on the cusp of taking the next step.”
Defender General Matthew Valerio said in general he has no objection to the process, as long as the defendants who choose to enter the drug treatment program are informed of their legal rights to contest the charges before they enter guilty pleas.
“The key is that they knowingly waive their rights,” he said.
As for the process of selecting which defendants are given the opportunity to enter the special program, Valerio said prosecutors have sole discretion in bringing criminal charges.
“Is there the potential for this to be arbitrary and to have the wrong people selected?” he said. “Absolutely.”
The special intervention program follows in the footsteps of a growing number of court programs that offer reduced penalties to offenders who work to amend their crimes or correct their behaviors.
Court diversion programs have for decades offered minor offenders a way to expunge their charges through restorative justice. The state’s drug courts have offered offenders with drug addictions a way to avoid prosecution for nonviolent, nondrug-dealing offenses by completing a 12-to-18-month process designed to help them receive drug treatment while keeping participants under close supervision.
A rapid intervention program that started in Chittenden County and was taken up in Rutland earlier this year added another layer to the rehabilitative process by trying to get low-level offenders with drug dependencies into treatment quickly.
The new approach being launched in Rutland was inspired by a two-day seminar in March attended by more than 100 people, including local, state and federal law enforcement members and prosecutors.
During the seminar, the police chief from High Point and staff members from Michigan State University who helped to implement the strategy there said violent crime in that community of 100,000 dropped 64 percent during the decade since the drug intervention strategy was launched. Street-corner drug markets that once thrived in the community were eradicated or greatly reduced.
The key to the strategy, researchers said, isn’t to target out-of-state suppliers or the addicts they serve. To disrupt the market, Vermont officials were told they need to attack activities at the retail level by either incarcerating or rehabilitating the low-level street dealers and anyone who helps them sell drugs.
Baker said this week that just about everyone arrested in the recent roundup represents the kind of low-level drug dealer or facilitator who helps grease the wheels locally for out-of-state suppliers.
“They’re the connectors, the facilitators, the hosts,” the chief said. “They give these guys rides, pick them up at train stations, give them a place to stay when they’re in town and they sell some of the product that they bring with them.”
Most of the 27 people arrested last week are out of jail either awaiting arraignments or, like the seven who entered innocent pleas to drug charges Monday, have posted bail and been released.
But in an effort to prevent those defendants from going back to their alleged roles of helping drug dealers make sales, Baker said his department is making an unprecedented effort to keep tabs on them.
The chief said his officers will make impromptu compliance checks on every one of the 27 defendants staying in Rutland while their cases are pending.
It’s a major commitment that Baker said will place an extra burden on his officers, but he said the close supervision will be worth it if the local drug market is disrupted.
“It’s important that we break the connection and keep other people from filling that void,” Baker said.
“And for those who take the offer of help, we’re going to make sure they’re in compliance with the drug court,” he said. “We’re going to be holding everyone’s feet to the fire.”