November 17, 2003

Ithacans March For Drug Rehab

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Protesters gathered in front of the Tompkins County courthouse Friday to rally against District Attorney George Dentes’ decision to pull out of a drug rehabilitation project. The program, drug court, offers those found guilty of non-violent offenses intense rehabilitation instead of jail time.

The rally was organized by Jessica Stewart, a member of the Ithaca Catholic Worker Community. According to Stewart, drug court lowers recovering drug abusers’ rate of recidivism and saves money — by keeping people out of jail and helping them become productive members of society. She said that Dentes’ decision to pull out of drug court due to budget cuts “makes it very difficult for drug court to continue.”

“The main message we want to convey is that drug court and alternatives to incarceration work, and they save money,” Stewart said.

Members of the rally met at DeWitt Park downtown, where Pete Meyers of the Workers’ Rights Center introduced Stewart. Stewart spoke briefly about the drug court program and introduced Darline Desmond, who served as the coordinator of drug court family services since 1999.

Desmond said that the drug court program is challenging, but that it is important for the community. “Substance abuse related crime is a social issue,” she said, noting that it affects family, friends and children in addiction to the offender.

She said that graduates of drug court benefit society by holding jobs and paying taxes, making the investment in the program worthwhile.

Following the meeting at DeWitt, the protesters marched to the courthouse, where four speakers voiced their concerns for drug court and other alternatives to incarceration. The first, Leni Hochman, read a statement prepared by her husband, Tim Joseph, chairman of the Tompkins County Legislature.

The statement described the policy of incarceration for drug abuse offenders as a “failed experiment” and contended that recidivism is 29 percent lower for graduates of drug court. It also said that although Dentes can decide whether to participate in drug court, it is up to the legislature and judges to decide whether to continue the program.

Dentes, who was not present at the rally, said that he respects the group’s right to protest the decision but that they should have targeted their dissent at the legislature. He said that his decision to pull out of drug court was a financial one, and that “if the county wants the District Attorney in drug court, they’ll have to fund a person to be in drug court.”

Dentes explained that since drug court is still a criminal court, the D.A. must be present for the proceedings — a costly commitment which would prevent the D.A. from participating in other programs which can also benefit society.

“From a legislative prospective, you can’t just say it’s worth it,” Dentes said. “You have to say, ‘worth it compared to what?'”

Dentes also refuted the protesters’ claim that drug court saves money, saying that it is impossible to point to any department that will benefit financially from the program. He said that any savings would be general and long-term, but that the legislature can not create a budget on that basis.

The rally, which consisted of about 55 marchers, was planned in association with the Interfaith Campaign to Repeal/Reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Stewart explained that the laws, passed in the 1970s in New York State, are very stringent and punitive laws.

The National Organization for Women was also present at the event, as was the Workers’ Rights Center. Representatives from both groups said that the issue is one that concerns their respective causes.

“We support all issues for [low] wage workers, and this is one of them,” said Jessica Brown, a member of the Workers’ Rights Center.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit