Five years ago, Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein was at the forefront of changing the way in which many drug offenders are dealt with when they are brought into the town’s judicial system. Rather than incarcerating those who commit drug related crimes in a prison system that is already overcrowded, the East End Regional Intervention Court strives not only to rehabilitate offenders, but reform them as well.
The program is about involvement, and offenders who are accepted into it are provided with a safety net of inter-coordinated legal help. From a judge who volunteers to be involved in the process, to a court coordinator, lawyers, legal aid counsel and treatment advisors, all work together in formulating a plan for that particular offender. The defendant has a responsibility too — and signs a contract — agreeing to take part in drug rehabilitation, sober living and other measures that will hopefully lead to a clean life.
Some defendants spend up to two years in the drug court program, and by all accounts, it’s working. Of the 100 East End drug court graduates, only three have been re-arrested.
But it’s not just these numbers that reveal the program’s success. It’s also a success when measured in terms of dollars and cents. It costs a lot to house, feed and supervise prisoners — and many prisons are bursting at the seams. By keeping non-violent drug offenders out of the prison system, that additional financial burden is also removed from the shoulders of taxpayers. In the end, with a vital support system of involved individuals to follow defendants through the entire process, the community comes out ahead when a former drug offender becomes a productive member of society — rather than a hardened ex-convict who is more likely to re-offend.
It’s innovative and creative solutions like this that often not only produce better results, but save money in the long run.
Ironically, this week we’ve learned that many youth programs on the East End are facing serious budget cuts — victims of the financial woes both Southampton and East Hampton are facing. This is certainly bad news heaped on top of troubled times. So many families are struggling these days, that the last thing they can afford to lose are recreational and support groups for their kids.
Research has shown that youth programs are vital — not just for keeping kids entertained, but for keeping them safe as well. It’s said that every dollar spent on youth development today saves an estimated $10 to $20 down the road. That’s money that ideally won’t be spent on kids who grow up to become troubled teens or adults with problems like addiction — adults like those Judge Kooperstein sees in her drug court.
By involving and connecting kids early on, we raise self esteem. And when kids have high self-esteem and are occupied, they’re far less likely to get involved with other kinds of distractions that can lead to problems. It can be as simple as giving kids something to do, or provide them with a role model who knows their name and keeps tabs on what they’re up to — a human safety net to prevent them from one day hitting bottom. Idleness alone doesn’t necessarily lead to drug addiction, but being occupied and engaged certainly lessens the chance that kids today will come in contact with forces that may lead them to Deborah Kooperstein’s court room a few years down the road.
And if these cuts to youth programming are inevitable, so be it. But to fill the void, we fervently hope there is another Deborah Kooperstein in the wings, this time, one who is ready and willing to create a novel program to keep the youth of the East End involved and safe. Their future is counting on it.