Gurney's Inn
May 03, 2006

Graduates Celebrate New Beginnings

Baiting Hollow resident Michael Battle, 26, had been winning his own personal war against heroin and crack cocaine for two years when, just over a year ago, he relapsed.

"It was bad, and it just got worse," he said. "I started taking my mother's credit cards and checks until, finally, she'd had enough and had me locked up."

Battle, who had been an honor student at a Catholic high school, first started using drugs soon after graduation. He was just 17.

In the years since, Battle has been waging a war with his inner demons, his days filled with despair and a sense of futility. "I was in so many different rehabs, I can't count. I had been locked up for a year in Nassau County and on Riker's Island," he said.

Today, though, both Battle and his mother are glad she resorted to tough love. Once arrested, Battle met Charlene Mascia, East End Regional Intervention Court coordinator, and embarked upon a life-altering journey.

Last week, Battle's mother stood proudly in the audience at Riverhead Town Hall and watched as her son and seven other participants graduated from the East End Regional Intervention Court's drug court program. Only eight months after the EERIC's first graduation, the ceremony marked the success of a drug treatment court methodology that focuses on intense rehabilitation rather than punitive measures.

The first drug court kicked off in 1989 in Miami, with others to follow in New York State over 11 years ago. Drug courts, however, did not open their doors on the East End until 2004, when Riverhead Town Justice Allen M. Smith and Southampton Town Justice Deborah E. Kooperstein launched the program with a team of professionals dedicated to serving the East End. Before EERIC began, the closest drug court was located in Central Islip.

Drug courts are comprised of voluntary groups of offenders and generally do not admit hard-core criminals. The goal, said Mascia, is to focus on treatment to address the problems of addiction, rather than incarceration.

When Battle was first approached by Mascia in jail, he had a record including three felony and four misdemeanor charges. Upon completion of drug court, he said, all seven charges were dismissed.

It's not an easy program, and many opt to take the jail time. "When you enter into drug court, we demand change," said Mascia.

The problem, however, she said, is that many participants are still in denial. "Some say, 'I don't have a problem, so why would I want to go into treatment and submit myself to over a year of supervision?'" 

She said, "Graduates of the program point out that hands down, jail is easier. In jail, they eat, sleep, play cards. When you leave, you haven't changed."

Participants in drug court must attend treatment, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, appear in court every week, and submit to regular drug/alcohol detection tests.

"It takes a lot of courage, and a willingness to change on their parts," said Mascia.

Battle agreed: "It's 150 times easier to go to jail and sit there. You absolutely do nothing."

Battle was, in fact, "warned" by a friend not to sign up for the yearlong stint. But he opted to give a new life a try and was, at first, doing fine and enjoying his newfound freedom.

"Then I dropped one dirty urine and I ended up in Phoenix House," said Battle, in a phone interview from the Hauppauge-based treatment facility.

At first, Battle was angry, but he soon learned that Mascia's actions were sparked by concern, meant to get him back on track.

Battle was grateful: "I relapsed about five weeks into the program, and drug court should have remanded me, but they didn't. They gave me a chance."

Today, Battle is a man reborn: After last week's graduation, he has no legal mandate to stay in Phoenix House, but has opted to continue and begin the counselor training program, so he can help others.

"I get to see the changes, to watch the participants going to treatment, staying clean," said Mascia. "They're getting family members back in their lives, becoming employable. Two of them had drug-free babies. You see families heal, see a person become whole again. It's like a metamorphosis."

Mascia said that when the concept works, there's nothing more rewarding. "It puts a smile on my face and warmth in my heart because we've made a difference in saving someone's life."

Statistics prove it's a winning formula: A 2003 study by the Center for Court Innovation reflected that that the rates at which drug court graduates re-offend are significantly reduced. The arrest rate among drug offenders who completed a court-monitored treatment plan was 29% lower over three years than the rate for those who chose prison time.

Alternative solutions save money: The report also indicated that New York drug courts, highly successful nationwide models that included 18,000 participants, saved an estimated $254 million in prison-related expenses.

Riverhead defense attorney Susan Menu, president of the criminal bar association agreed: "Any time an offender gets treatment, ceases criminal activity, and improves their life is beneficial, let alone the money it saves. And the lives they save. Any time there's an alternative to incarceration, that's a good thing."

Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, executive director of the Seafield Center, Inc, applauds the program: "It gives people a second chance."

Statewide expansion signals change: In 2005, there were 126 courts in operation, with 65 in the planning stage.

Since enrolling, Battle has grown. "It's the little things," he said. "At first, I didn't understand why they made us tuck in our shirts or shave. Now I see there has to be structure."

Battle said he is "much stronger" and has learned how to handle emotions and about the importance of consequential thinking.

To those who are beginning their own journey, Battle advocates taking the first step. "It's about blind faith and trust. You have to trust that what they're telling you is the right thing. If you don't believe it at first, you will."

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