Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein, Shelter Island Justice Helen Rosenblum and Riverhead Justice Allen Smith at the Southampton Town Drug Court on Tuesday.
By Kathryn G. Menu; Michael Heller photography
Almost two decades ago, Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein was on the bench before a case involving an 18-year-old from Noyac, facing marijuana possession charges, a violation in the eyes of the court. She agreed to adjourn the case in contemplation of dismissal for one year’s time, a common decision but a moment that would change her life forever.
During the course of that year, the young man died of a heroin overdose. His older sister was a court clerk, and Justice Kooperstein attended the man’s wake in a moment of solidarity with her colleague.
“He was 18 years old, and there I was looking at him in a funeral parlor in Hampton Bays,” she said. “It just shook me. I cried the entire way home to Bridgehampton. I just kept asking myself, how does someone go from smoking pot to this?”
The moment led Justice Kooperstein to begin researching a restorative model of justice that would ultimately lead to the founding of the East End Regional Intervention Court, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in February.
The court—often referred to as drug court—is available to those over the age of 16 who face non-violent, drug-related charges on the East End. According to the court coordinator Charlene Mascia, EERIC has served 146 participants to date, with 83 of those individuals officially graduating from the program.
“We average about 25 participants a year,” said Ms. Mascia. “There have been times when we have had 40 participants and times when we’ve had 20.”
To officially become part of the program, individuals must enter a guilty plea with the court and sign a contract that lays out an alternate sentence they will face if they don’t follow the court’s orders or if they leave the program. Often, that sentence is jail time.
The court is held weekly in Southampton and Riverhead Justice Courts, with Justice Kooperstein, Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith, Southold Town Justice William Price and Shelter Island Justice Helen Rubenstein presiding on the bench. However, an interdisciplinary team, including probation officers and clinicians, offer participants a comprehensive strategy toward a drug-free, and crime-free, life.
According to Justice Kooperstein, who was instrumental in the founding of EERIC, the drug court has a 75-percent success rate in terms of its graduates going on to lead healthy, successful lives, and not face prison time. Conversely, she said, those who are incarcerated have a 75-percent likelihood of ending up back in that system within a five-year period.
While the drug court helps those facing a variety of substance abuse problems, “nothing is cheaper than heroin,” said Justice Kooperstein.
“Most of the people we have right now are heroin addicts,” she said. “It’s a real struggle.”
Justice Kooperstein said from the bench she has seen the impact of heroin in every demographic.
“I would say it’s substantially increased in use in the upper and middle classes, people with businesses,” Justice Koooperstein said.
EERIC, she said, currently has participants as young as 18 and as old as 47 years old. Last week, a 58 year-old graduated from the program.
Justice Kooperstein said she had learned from speaking with those involved in drug court that while heroin use is common among many participants in the program, often drug abuse starts early, with substances like marijuana, and increasingly what is found in the unlocked medicine cabinet. From there, it can escalate.
At the drug court, participants attend weekly meetings and must adhere to court orders as far reaching as a requirement for in-patient rehab to whom one can communicate with on the telephone. In addition to the justices, probation officers and a assistant district attorney, participants in the drug court work with clinicians like Jack Hoffmann, LCSW, of Eastern Long Island Hospital. Mr. Hoffman is a Sag Harbor resident with a private practice as well.
Both Mr. Hoffman and Justice Kooperstein said while the court is strict, with penalties including incarceration on the table, its goal is success.
“It takes a lot for us to let someone fail,” said Mr. Hoffman. “The judges are rigorous in their encouraging people to remain with the program and my role is to continue to offer education to the court about psychological and social needs, what treatments people may need.”
Upon graduation, which can occur a year or more after a defendant signs up for drug court, misdemeanor charges are reduced or sometimes dropped altogether.
Jacquie Gettling was 18 when she began using drugs. Her drug of choice was cocaine. She began by snorting it, before moving on to freebasing the drug before finally trying crack cocaine.
“I used off and on for more than 20 years,” said Ms. Gettling, an East Hampton resident. “My drug use almost cost me everything. Thank God for drug court.”
Ms. Gettling, now 50, was 40 years old when she was stopped for speeding in Southampton Village.
“I was carrying about $200 worth of crack cocaine in my pocket at the time,” said Ms. Gettling. “This offense would have landed me in prison for 18 months. As a mother of three and the proprietor of a kids’ karate school, this was definitely my rock bottom.”
Ms. Gettling’s husband spoke with Justice Barbara Wilson and told her his wife was battling a drug problem. Justice Wilson recommended that she go to drug court.
When Ms. Gettling reported to the program, she was told she could either accept the court’s help or go to jail for 18 months.
“At the time I thought, of course I would take drug court because I didn’t want to go to jail for 18 months,” she said, “not because I wanted to stop doing drugs.”
She agreed to the terms of the court, which included abstinence from all alcohol and drugs. Justice Kooperstein stressed the importance of honesty and abstinence.
“Immediately upon leaving court, I went and got high again,” she said.
When Ms. Gettling tested positive for drug use it wasn’t the drug use that led Justice Kooperstein to send her to the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside—it was the fact she lied about it.
“You see, the court knows drug use is an addiction and there is a very high chance you will relapse,” she said. “So from that I learned that honesty is the best policy.”
That night in jail changed Ms. Gettling.
“My program was to show up on time,” she said. “To be accountable for my actions; to refrain from the use of all drugs and alcohol; to attend NA and or AA meetings daily; to get myself in an outpatient program and, of course, to report into drug court.”
“I also had a probation officer who would check in on me from time to time,” she said.
“I did the program to the very best of my ability and because of it I was one of the very first graduates of the East End Regional Intervention Courts,” said Ms. Gettling. “I believe I was in the system for a little over a year, but the system remains in me today.”
Today, Ms. Gettling runs a successful business—G5 Studio, which teaches karate, exercise, mixed martial arts and dance classes out of Evolution Fitness Gym in Southampton. She is also the manager of the Eileen Fisher Clothing Store in East Hampton and a board member for the Friends of EERIC, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the court and members of the court.
On August 8, she will celebrate 10 years of sobriety.