MONTPELIER -- Heroin-related crime has so overwhelmed Vermont's courts and jails in recent years that lawmakers are poised to adopt sweeping standards for a statewide diversion program to get some offenders into drug treatment and out of the judicial system.
A few local communities in the state already divert many accused of drug-related crimes and report soaring success, with at least 80 percent of participants conviction-free after a year. And with drug treatment costing roughly a tenth of incarceration costs, the savings are potentially in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Drug and alcohol treatment diversions are used elsewhere, but experts say the Vermont legislation being considered would be one of the most comprehensive state laws in the nation.
"Everybody's trying out new stuff because the old system is broken. It costs too much to house people. It costs too much to put people on probation," said Emmet Helrich, coordinator of the Chittenden County Rapid Intervention Community Court.
The legislation was approved by the state senate on Thursday and now goes to the house, where Speaker Shap Smith expects it will pass with some adjustments.
Vermont prosecutors, law enforcement and lawmakers blame the recent crushing influx of drug-related crime -- up 46 percent since 2009 -- for piling on court caseloads and pushing prisons to their limit.
In Chittenden County, home of Burlington, addicts charged with such crimes as theft, drug possession or writing bad checks are evaluated for diversion by the state's attorney and police before they are charged. Participants are eligible even if they have past convictions, unlike typical diversion programs.
T.J. Donovan, state's attorney for Chittenden County, who helped start the program in 2010, said it works because it integrates public health and public safety. The program has diverted about 1,200 people so far.
"We have a self interest in making sure that we address the root cause that's driving the criminal behavior," Donovan said, tackling the addiction issues that fuel much of the state's crime.
Shumlin, who called national attention to the problem in his recent state of the state address, is promoting the legislation. He says imprisonment in Vermont costs more than $1,000 a week, while diversion treatment programs cost about $136 a week.
The Chittenden program's annual budget is about $114,000, Helrich said. The average annual cost of housing Vermont prisoners is more than $50,000 each, so even if the program stopped just 10 of its 1,200 participants from going on to jail, the savings would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, Helrich said.
For Melissa Weston, 21, Chittenden County's program derailed an addiction that started in 2010 with painkillers and escalated to heroin.
"It basically saved my life," she said.
Almost a year ago, Weston faced prison for multiple charges of drug possession and shoplifting.
"I always said I'd never get into drugs," Weston said. "And then one random night in winter, I tried an oxy." Within months, she'd switched to heroin, saying it cost less and was much easier to find.
Weston was identified as a candidate for the program by Helrich, a former Burlington police officer for 31 years.
She spent 14 days in rehabilitation at Maple Leaf Farm, a drug treatment center in Underhill, and took courses on the community impact of shoplifting. Her charges were dropped and she reports being sober for 8 months.
Just last week, Attorney General Eric Holder called the 45 percent increase in heroin-related deaths from 2006-2010 an "urgent and growing public health crisis" and said opiate addiction is impacting Americans "in every state, in every region."
In Burlington, Annie Ramniceanu of Spectrum Youth and Family Services helped start an arraignment-level diversion program in 2009. It has made about 400 referrals.
She said about 40 percent of her agency's at-risk youth clients now come in as opiate abusers. When she started working there in 1998, she didn't see a single case.
The bill would have courts offer pretrial screening for drug- or alcohol-addicted defendants, with offender assessments from the Department of Corrections. Sen. Tim Ashe, a Burlington Democrat and bill sponsor, says state's attorneys would still have flexibility in implementing the programs. It would also safeguard medication-assisted therapy for opioid treatment and increase penalties for heroin traffickers.
In addition to the Chittenden rapid intervention program, two other local programs inspired the bill.
About half of Vermont's offenders are reconvicted for new offenses within three years, according to 2011 legislative research. But more than 80 percent of successful participants in those programs were conviction-free a year later, according to The Vermont Center For Justice Research.
Helrich said four other counties are already beginning to implement their own programs.
Beyond Vermont, at least 17 states have statewide laws or oversight for treatment diversion. Vermont's law would be one of the most comprehensive.
"We're seeing, all over the country, more openness to diversion programs," said Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives at the Drug Policy Alliance.
For Weston, diversion has already changed her life. She is now working two jobs, plans to return to cosmetology school and hopes to move out of Liberty House next month.
"I wouldn't be sober today if it wasn't for this program." Weston said.