Today, a panel of Judges from the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (EDNY) put together a very effective presentation for the current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The presentation was about two rehabilitation programs put in place by EDNY: Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP) an Special Options Services program (SOS). After opening statements, EDNY invited successful program participants to address audience about their misfortunes. These were very emotional moments, with presenters’ tears and words even touching upon cold-stone faces of the U.S. Marshall’s Service and the court’s security personnel. The point made by EDNY and (I think) agreed by Mr. Holder is that not everyone deserves equal punishment under the law. There are those who, as a result of the environment where they have been brought up and/or mistakes made, deserve a lighter treatment, especially if offense is drug related. According to the EDNY report, general premise is “that many substance abusers are arrested for behavior that is grounded in their drug or alcohol addictions and, but for those addictions, they might lead law-abiding lives.” Id. at 7.
Of course this notion is not new. In the state system, we have Brooklyn Treatment Court that attempts to put offenders on diversionary path. Across the river in New Jersey, courts utilize Pre-Trial Intervention and Conditional Dismissal for non-violent offenses. What’s new is the program’s adoption by the courts at the federal level. Probably for political reasons, much of the report’s focus is devoted to money, i.e. less burden for taxpayers. But the report also makes an attempt to state that the community as a whole benefits because its members can re-integrate into society as good citizens. Unlike its New Jersey rehabilitation counterparts, however, the program lacks certainty. For example, POP/SOS contemplate “the possibility that the rehabilitation of the participating defendant might be sufficiently extraordinary that outright dismissal of the charges on the motion of the United States Attorney would be appropriate. Report at 7. For its NJ PTI counterpart, such possibility is a must: “If PTI is successfully completed, there is no record of conviction and the defendant avoids the stigma of a criminal record.” While for POP/SOS, like for PTI, plea is not a prerequisite, the successful completion of POP/SOS may not guarantee outright dismissal. In fact, the Report states that POP/SOS participants will be stigmatized with a criminal record, although not as harsh: “[i]n most cases … the benefit to the participants … has been the consideration of … whether the participant will be sentenced to prison. Report at 9. Therefore, federal community takes tougher stance towards non-violent drug offenders agreeing to reduce the charges to misdemeanor from felony, as opposed to outright dismissal as a matter of law. Id.
Notwithstanding tougher federal posture, being present in the same court room with POP/SOS participants and EDNY judges, it was very apparent the true and honest appreciation of POP/SOS folks for rehabilitation opportunities and EDNY’s judicial community real involvement and personal participation in the lives of those who had a misfortune to run against the U.S. criminal justice system.