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Suffolk program offers treatment to some drug defendants instead of charges

The effort is an attempt to address the scourge of opioid addiction while freeing up criminal courts to deal with more serious offenses, officials say.

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini announced a new drug program on Monday for misdemeanor offenders that gives defendants an option of drug treatment in exchange for a dismissal of their charges.  (Credit: News 12)

Suffolk officials rolled out a program Monday that offers nonviolent drug offenders treatment to avoid criminal charges, the county's latest strategy to stem an opioid epidemic responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Long Islanders last year.

Designed by prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and court officials, the "Comprehensive Addiction Recovery and Education Program" — or C.A.R.E. — works as an incentive for defendants to complete 90 days in drug treatment and have their cases dismissed, county leaders said during a news conference at Suffolk County Court in Central Islip.

“This is the latest tool in our arsenal to combat the drug epidemic facing our communities,” Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said. “The goal of the program is to divert low-level offenders who commit nonviolent crimes due to substance abuse disorders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment where they can get the help they need.”

Defendants who participate in the C.A.R.E program will be evaluated by the Suffolk County Drug Treatment Team to determine appropriate treatment plans. Their cases will also be sealed once they finish their treatment regimen, said Suffolk County District Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, adding that the program “will work to save and transform lives.”

The C.A.R.E. program will operate in addition to the Suffolk County Drug Treatment Court, officials said, but unlike the drug court, C.A.R.E. defendants will not be required to enter a guilty plea in exchange for treatment.

“The court's current drug treatment model requires the defendant plead guilty to the criminal charges before entering a treatment program. Many in the defense bar claim it is a significant impediment,” Sini said. “C.A.R.E. removes that requirement with the objective of further incentivizing defendants to participate in treatment.”

Defendants in Suffolk drug court are required to participate in treatment much longer than the C.A.R.E. program — at least 12 months on misdemeanors and 18 months for felony charges.

Officials said the C.A.R.E. program is open to defendants with minimal or no criminal record and no history of violence or gang involvement. About 600 people charged with crimes between April and June would be eligible for the program.

Bohemia defense attorney Harry Tilis, president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association, called the C.A.R.E. program’s emphasis on treatment “a seismic shift” in the way law-enforcement officials approach the opioid epidemic.

“It is a huge opportunity for the sick and suffering in our communities and their families to get on the road to recovery,” Tilis said.

An estimated 600 people died from drug overdoses in Suffolk and Nassau in 2017, according to the counties’ medical examiner offices. The number of fatal drug overdoses nationwide stood at nearly 64,000 in 2016, federal statistics show, with 115 Americans dying daily.

Nassau County courts offer drug-diversion programs similar to C.A.R.E. But in Nassau's "Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison," decisions about eligibility and whether completing treatment eliminates criminal charges and sentencing are made on a case-by-case basis, according to the county's  Executive Assistant District Attorney Maureen McCormick. The Nassau County Misdemeanor Drug Treatment Court, meanwhile, diverts defendants charged with a misdemeanor into drug treatment.

Addiction expert Jeffrey Reynolds called the C.A.R.E. program a smart approach to an opioid epidemic that has ravaged thousands of families on Long Island and across the country.

“While some defendants should and will make their way through the criminal justice system," said Reynolds, the president of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, "a smarter approach that provides for earlier diversion into treatment for low-level offenders frees up critical law-enforcement resources and may help end a revolving door of arrests, court dates and jail sentences for Suffolk’s residents who are struggling with addiction.”

Sini said the pool of defendants eligible for the C.A.R.E. program is more ethnically diverse than those in Suffolk's drug court.

 “Thus, not only will this program increase the number of defendants in treatment," he said, "it will ensure that all defendants — no matter what race or ethnicity — have an opportunity to benefit from this program."

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