Author: The PLS Reporter/Monday, March 31, 2014/Categories: News and Views


By Jason Gottesman

As advertised, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections held its hearing on how drug courts relate to Pennsylvania’s heroin crisis.

During the hearing, subcommittee members heard from a panel of judges, drug court graduates, and legal professionals on how drug courts have lowered recidivism, provided treatment options, and turned around the lives of those who enter drug court programs.

The committee also heard different perspectives about how the heroin crisis got so bad and the need to combat the problem on the front end through education and prevention, and not just through back end rehabilitation.

“I think it’s encouraging and discouraging at the same time,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland). “We have good people working on the problem and obviously there are success stories. We saw two of them today. It’s a very broad problem. It’s a societal problem. It’s a family problem.”

One of the problems identified with how drug courts operate was noted by Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria). “There’s no money for pre-sentencing diversion,” he pointed out. “To me, all the things you are doing in your post-sentencing drug courts ought to be done in pre-sentencing.”

He said the General Assembly tells courts how to set fines and what restitution amounts should be and argued presentencing diversion programs should be paid out of the fines from people already in the system.

Judge John Kennedy of the York County Court of Common Pleas had a different suggestion for how pre-sentencing diversion programs can be funded. “Where I really think the funding is, is if we front-loaded the system like Texas did and Virginia did,” he said. “If we were using the courts to the max, we would not be sending as many people to the state prison system, that’s the bottom line.”

“We can look at Virginia, we can look at Texas, and see what other people are doing well, but we should be under no illusion that we can do any one thing here that’s going to fix this problem,” Rep. Krieger stated. “If we can spend the same amount of dollars and keep people out of this problem in the first place, we should do it.”

Another concern articulated at the hearing was how to address the problem with younger people to equip them with the tools to avoid drug use in the first place.

Rep. Brandon Neuman (D-Washington) noted an issue in a school in his district where 20 percent of the students who were to watch a presentation on heroin received written excuses from their parents. “We do have problems getting to all the students,” he said.

Judge Kennedy argued some of the problem in reaching children has to do with them having drug addicted parents. “If you go into the York City schools, I think it’s 50 to 60 percent they’ll say are single parent households. I would argue that many are no-parents households because that single parent is drug abuse or substance abuse connected. There is no stigma in society anymore with out-of-wedlock births,” he said.

Despite this, Ashley McCrod, a graduate of the Wyoming/Sullivan Drug Court, said education needs to be part of all prevention efforts. “Try to do it wherever you can,” she said.

What’s the process after today’s hearing?

“We have a lot of work to do to put all of the testimony together and see where we are going from here,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin). He did not rule out the possibility of more hearings on the issue.