Prosecutors should lead to reform our criminal justice system
The tragic recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman of a heroin overdose is a call to action. While the world mourns the loss of a talented artist, we must take time to reflect and rededicate our efforts at addressing a community health and safety issue: the issue of addiction.
For far too long, the criminal justice system has viewed the issue of addiction strictly through the lens of public safety with the focus on punishment. This approach has led to staggering corrections budgets, high recidivism rates, and countless damaged and lost lives. As Hoffman's death illustrates, the reach of addiction does not discriminate. We should all be concerned. As prosecutors, we need to take a new approach and look at alternatives to punishment. It's time to look beyond the crime committed to actually solve the drug epidemic.
In 2010, I instituted a program in Chittenden County that took a new approach to dealing with drug use: The Rapid Intervention Community Court ("RICC"). RICC is a pre-charge program designed to enhance public safety by addressing the root cause(s) of one's criminal behavior. The program's use of evidence-based assessment tools that "use information about individuals' criminogenic risk and behavioral health needs to promote public safety and recovery and prioritize scarce criminal justice and behavioral health resources" is a smart on crime approach. Just this year, neighboring counties of Rutland, Lamoille and Addison began utilizing RICC.
With RICC, a community intervention team member screens the case, conducts a risk assessment and then refers to the appropriate community-based accountability program in lieu of prosecution. By identifying, screening, assessing and diverting these target populations from the criminal justice system to evidence-based community treatment and services, we will treat those that suffer from addiction in a much more effective and economical way. RICC provides Vermont with a novel and powerful intervention that uses classic public health strategies to address public safety needs. It allows us to create and maintain the "front door" leading into the Department of Corrections, and allows us to organize community resources to avert incarceration and demonstrate resulting outcomes. The outcomes thus far have been spectacular. The recidivism rate for those that completed RICC is about 7.5 percent.
By relying on science, we will enhance information sharing, divert more cases and inform practitioners of best practices rather than rely on arbitrary practices throughout the state. This will also educate criminal justice stakeholders as to some of the factors that influence criminal behavior. Through collaboration and greater communication, we will begin to build consensus that public safety and accountability are enhanced by addressing the root causes of low level criminal behavior by building and coordinating the treatment infrastructure in our communities. By addressing issues such as poverty, housing, education, employment, addiction, mental illness, and insurance coverage, we will build real solutions. Solutions that allow criminal justice stakeholders to utilize their scarce resources to vigorously prosecute those who truly pose a threat to our public safety, while assuring efficient access to treatment and services to those that need it. This is 21st century law enforcement at its finest.
This approach is beginning to work in Vermont, thanks in large part to leadership of Governor Peter Shumlin. Governor Shumlin used his annual State of State address to highlight one topic in our state -- addiction. Instead of employing the failed rhetoric of "tough on crime," Governor Shumlin spoke about treating addiction for what it is: a public health issue. The Governor issued a bold challenge, and those of us in the law enforcement community are well positioned to do our part to rise to that challenge.
I urge all my fellow prosecutors to adopt Vermont's smart approach to dealing with drug abuse. Let's provide treatment to our neighbors who need it, and help prevent the next tragedy.
T.J. Donovan is the Chittenden County State Attorney. He lives in South Burlington with his wife, Jess, and his two sons.
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