In the criminal court system, there is often a barrier between judge and defendant. The judge speaks directly to the lawyers, and rarely to the accused.
But almost 10 years ago, Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein lobbied for a different approach to handling drug offenses and offenders. She went on to establish the East End Regional Intervention Court in 2004 as a way to blend accountability with treatment. Her work is featured in a new documentary “The Last Fix,” which documents three addicts’ journeys through the East End drug courts.
Above: Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein hugs one of the graduates of the East End drug courts.
In a final scene in the film, Dave, one if the recovered addicts, is graduating from the program and giving a speech. As Dave thanks Judge Kooperstein, who is sitting next to him, her eyes well with tears. When he finishes his speech, the pair hug as the other graduates and court coordinator cheer Dave on.
The East End drug courts, which are located in Riverhead and Southampton, offer a novel way in handling drug related crimes, explained “The Last Fix” director Jacqui Lofaro, who co-directed and co-produced the film with Victor Teich. The documentary sheds a spotlight on the effectiveness of the drug courts through a local lens. Lofaro adds that 2,200 similar drug courts have mushroomed across the country in all 50 states. However, the courts remain under funded and in need of expansion.
“The Last Fix” not only highlights the work of the drug courts, but offers an indictment of “the war on drugs” and the conventional method of handling drug cases.
“It is different than the justice system which is based on punishment. The drug courts are therapeutic jurisprudence,” noted Lofaro.
In the East End drug court, non-felon drug offenders sign a contract to enroll in the program. A judge, who volunteers his or her time, a court coordinator, a probation officer, an assistant district attorney, a private defense lawyer, a legal aid bureau chief and other treatment advisers all work on the drug offender’s case and help in formulating an appropriate treatment plan.
This team also decides who to accept into the program. The team can make a number of different recommendations, from making the offender move into a sober living house or enroll in a rehabilitation program as well as be subjected to periodic drug testing. If a defendant relapses during the program, they must start at the beginning of their treatment plan. Where rehabilitation programs last around 30 days, some defendants are in the drug court program for over two years.
Of the intimate bonds formed by the offender and the judge during the process, Lofaro explains, “The judge becomes a compassionate mother or father figure. They [the defendants] are accountable to this person. They speak on a weekly basis about their lives. They have never really had that before … a judge saying ‘tell me how your week went.’ The judge is interested in them.”
In “The Last Fix,” Lofaro and Teich focused their attention on the stories of three recovered addicts: Jacquie, a mother of three who was addicted to crack-cocaine, Dave, a plumber and small business owner who had a $3,000 a week habit, and Matt, a young graduate of Southampton High School who, despite having succeeded in sports, spiraled into a life of addiction as a teenager.
“For me, they represented a cross section of humanity,” said Lofaro. “Matt is represented as the youth figure. Dave is strong and articulate. He had great leadership skills and was very successful in business but had an inability to recognize his addiction. Jacquie was extraordinary in the film in the way she pulled herself out of addiction. Her husband Tommy said the drug court didn’t only give him back Jacquie but it gave him back his family.”
These three locals tell their stories of addiction from the beginning to the end, but all note a moment of epiphany when they finally decided to kick their habit. For Jacquie, it came after an arrest in front of her family. As Matt was about to go on a night-long bender, he found himself accidentally locked in a bathroom and after 20 minutes decided to turn a new leaf. During the film, these recovered addicts spare no uncomfortable or humiliating details when telling their stories.
“They peeled away their skin. They were willing … They said, ‘If this film could make a difference and help even on addict than it is worthwhile,’” remarked Lofaro.
The drug courts are astonishingly effective in reducing the rates of recidivism, or re-arrests. Of the 100 East End drug court graduates, only three have been arrested again. At a time when the nation’s prisons are overcrowded and one out of every 200 Americans are in jail, the drug courts could help in reducing the number of incarcerations and save money in court and prison expenses, observed Lofaro. As shown in the film, Dr. Joseph Califano, Jr., who is the president of the national center on addiction and substance abuse at Columbia University, said nearly 80 percent of the felons and juvenile criminals currently in prison carried out their crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol, were known users of drugs or stole in order to pay for their addiction.
“As for the East End courts, more than 50 percent of cases are drug related. It has been a shift in the last 15 years. The drug cases have come to dominate the criminal court calendars in all five towns,” noted Judge Kooperstein in an interview.
Lofaro hopes “The Last Fix” will serve as both film and educational tool. She would like to preview it at local schools, to community organizations and lawyers’ associations. The film will be accompanied with a discussion guide.
Lofaro and Teich were just awarded a grant from the Suffolk County Film Commission in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Institute. With the new money, the film making team will add an additional six minutes of footage.
Lofaro calls “The Last Fix” a documentary-in-progress but it will be shown as part the Hamptons Take Two Film Festival at Bay Street Theatre this Sunday.
“A good documentary has the ability to engage people in that topic of conversation,” said Lofaro. “People need to talk about this.”
“The Last Fix” will be shown at the Hamptons Take Two Film Festival on Sunday, November 22, at the Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Four documentaries will be screened beginning at 1 p.m. Admission is by donation. Call 537-3361 for details.