Lawbreakers avoid jail, criminal record in diversion efforts
LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Bob Shonsky’s first arrest for drunken driving was followed by a second and a third.
Then Lancaster County Judge Jeffery Wright stepped in. Instead of locking him up for 90 or more days, the judge accepted Shonsky into the demanding, yearlong Veterans Court program and put him on an alcohol-detecting ankle bracelet.
Shonsky of Ephrata, a shaggy-bearded Army vet with Yosemite Sam tattooed to a beefy arm, had a few drinks with friends anyway, which the device detected.
“I wasn’t used to being told what to do,” he said.
Fortunately for Shonsky, Wright understands that new participants may chafe at Veterans Court’s restrictions. He jailed Shonsky for a week, brought him back to the program and, after he missed an appointment a few weeks later, returned him to jail — but just for 72 hours.
Exercising patience, Wright motivated Shonsky to change behaviors. Shonsky, 49, got his drinking under control, learned to manage a hair-trigger anger, obtained custody of his teenage son, and got married — in Veterans Court. These days he mentors other vets.
Shonsky’s 2017 graduation was a victory for problem-solving alternatives that divert over 1,100 Lancaster County offenders every year from the criminal justice system’s traditional path of guilty plea or trial and, in some cases, jail.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts says that diverting certain nonviolent criminals has been shown to reduce the number of repeat offenders, cut jail costs, improve lives and strengthen families. Research supports the claim.
The decision to divert a case rests solely with the district attorney, and under District Attorney Craig Stedman, diversions have grown. Since Stedman took office in 2008, the portion of cases bypassed from the traditional path has risen from single digits to 22 percent, exceeding the 18 percent state average, according to Pennsylvania judicial data.
Nearly 200 other local cases a year don’t show up in that data because they never make it to Common Pleas court. They are petty crimes that complete a district court diversion program Stedman created in 2011.
Stedman is proud of his record of expanding diversion, saying it has benefited offenders and the community.
Lauri Renick, 41, who had felony retail theft charges dismissed after graduating from Drug Court in 2007, is a case in point.
“If throwing me in jail is your solution to the symptoms of my disease, don’t be surprised when I do it again,” Renick said. “If I had taken four years of probation (instead of Drug Court), there’s no way I would have stayed clean.”
The Veterans Court program that transformed Shonsky’s life started in 2012. It is one of the five diversion options available in Lancaster County.
There are two other problem-solving programs: Drug Court, which started in 2005, and Mental Health Court, which began in 2010. The three treatment courts combined have graduated 306 participants. The number who haven’t reoffended hasn’t been tracked.
The workhorse of diversion is Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, a decades-old second-chance program Pennsylvania created for first-time intoxicated driving arrests and certain misdemeanors. A total of 1,320 Lancaster County defendants received ARD in 2017; 921 in 2018.
In addition, diversion happens at the magisterial district court level under the Drug & Alcohol Diversion Program. A total of 198 completed this program in 2017; 189 in 2019.
“If throwing me in jail is your solution to the symptoms of my disease, don’t be surprised when I do it again.”
What unifies the five paths is an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment. Low-level offenders earn the opportunity to avoid the stigma of conviction, jail time or both if they complete counseling, community service and other requirements. They may have one or more charges dismissed and supervision shortened upon payment of restitution and costs.
“There are some bad people who need to be incarcerated,” Judge Wright said. “But mass incarceration is not making the community any safer. They are going to get out someday, and when they do, they’re going to commit another crime.”
Evidence-based treatment courts and other diversion options, on the other hand, are “an investment against future crime,” he said.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the United States has an estimated 2,400 drug courts, 300 mental health courts and 100 veterans courts.
Pennsylvania’s first drug court started in Philadelphia in 1997, and the state Supreme Court officially recognized problem-solving courts in 2006, appointing a statewide coordinator.
A five-year study completed in 2011 by the National Institute of Justice and The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found that drug courts, the oldest of the treatment courts, significantly reduce relapse and criminal behavior. It also found that participants were less likely to report family conflict and more likely to be employed.
Diversion, of course, can backfire. Some successful participants are rearrested, exposing the district attorney to possible criticism for having given the lawbreaker a second chance.
But Stedman said he accepts the risk because of how society benefits from the overall impact of lower recidivism.
“The safer and easier thing for me as DA is to just say, ‘No, we’re not going to give you a diversion. We’re going to leave it up to the jury,’” Stedman said. “But I think we have that responsibility to make that call” when an offender looks appropriate for diversion.
Not long after Stedman took office in 2008, he expanded ARD to certain non-DUI cases such as retail theft and non-violent misdemeanors, something he said his predecessors rarely approved.
He also made domestic assaults eligible in instances in which the victim is a reluctant witness or the evidence is weak. But rather than drop those cases, he will approve an abuser for ARD and require him or her to complete anger management or batterer’s classes.
Stedman gives assistant DAs wide latitude in deciding whom to recommend for ARD. He reviews a form submitted by the assistant that discusses the evidence, conditions, and the victim’s and arresting officer’s opinions.
Stedman said he approves most ARD requests. When he’s undecided, he kicks the case to an ARD Review Panel, an entity he created.
The panel consists of three assistant DAs, a police officer and a probation officer. The offender and his or her attorney go before the panel for a brief, off-the-record conversation about what happened. The panel then recommends that Stedman approve or deny ARD.
The panel averages 10 to 20 cases a month.
At guilty plea court, Judge David Ashworth brings all of those seeking ARD into the well of the courtroom and tells them that the program, which includes a four-session alcohol education class, is a chance to learn from their behavior.
“For the people that qualify, it’s a do-over,” Ashworth said.
However, many cases that could be eligible for ARD don’t get that far because they’re diverted even earlier at district court.
It’s called the DA’s Drug & Alcohol Diversion Program. It’s for those charged with drug possession, underage drinking, public intoxication and substance abuse-related crimes.
An offender pays the fees, attends a half-day accountability class and completes other requirements the District Attorney’s Office imposes. Completion results in withdrawal of the charge.
Stedman said marijuana cases involving possession for personal use are eligible. Someone using more dangerous drugs, especially heroin, gets a closer look at eligibility. Stedman said he may decide they are better suited for ARD or Drug Court.
“What everyone should know is the response to these cases is not universally we’re going to lock you up,” Stedman said. “We want you to not reoffend, and we have alternative programs that can lead to a positive outcome. You’re going down the wrong path, and we’re going to give you one last chance. Our hope is that message gets through.”
On a Thursday afternoon in January, a 37-year-old Navy veteran from Lititz stood before Judge Wright to plead guilty to a second DUI.
Police had caught him driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. He told the judge he wanted to get his life back on track.
“You’ve come to the right place,” Wright said, accepting him into Veterans Court.
Veterans, mostly men, and some of their mentors, packed the gallery and jury box of Courtroom 5 where Veterans Court is held weekly. It started with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Wright called one participant at a time before him to report on progress or setbacks.
Wright responded with encouragement and sometimes with straight-faced wisecracks. Participants were expected to stay for the entire session, lasting about 90 minutes.
One participant named Matthew executed 24 pushups, a routine practice that Wright enforces at Veterans Court to keep the mood light and build camaraderie. The watching participants count each rep aloud.
Matthew told Wright about attending a Hershey Bears hockey game. Wright, a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, frowned because the Bears are a minor league team for the Washington Capitals.
“I can’t stand the Capitals,” Wright said, “so you’ll do pushups again.”
Brian, another participant, told the judge he took his mother out for dinner at Ruby Tuesday.
“Good choice,” Wright said. “Did you pay for the meal?”
Brian admitted he hadn’t, and Wright had him do pushups.
“I get a parade of despicable creatures coming into my courtroom,” Wright said in jest to the participants, “and yet that might top all of them.”
“It’s a very difficult program that allows people to get their lives back, and they become productive members of the community.”
A judge presides over each treatment court in public session, but the heavy lifting happens behind the scenes. At weekly meetings, a team discusses each participant or applicant. The team includes the judge, an assistant district attorney, a public defender, probation officers and other professionals, such as a mental health specialist, depending on the need.
Legal issues are largely beside the point. What matters most to the team is finding what will work — extra support, some kind of sanction? — to keep a participant making progress.
A sanction for an infraction could be handwriting the broken rule 500 times. Or it could be jail time.
“They are trusting us with very personal information, a great deal of vulnerability. And you have to respect and accept that trust and be worthy of it in the way you administer the program, not so that it’s easy, but so that it’s fair and provides them with what they need,” Judge Margaret Miller, who presides over Mental Health Court, said.
The treatment court judge becomes a behavior modification specialist in a robe.
“It’s not a hug-a-thug program,” Ashworth, who presides over Drug Court, said. “It’s a very difficult program that allows people to get their lives back, and they become productive members of the community.”
Shonsky, who served in the 1991 Gulf War, said Veterans Court made him want to be a better person.
“Many participants struggle at the beginning of the program, and Bob was no different,” Judge Wright said. Although he couldn’t disclose his team’s discussions, he said Shonsky worked hard, responded well to guidance and demonstrated dedication.
Wright said he was not surprised that Shonsky, a former member of a Berks County motorcycle club, became a mentor.
“He served the country for six years in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged as an E-4 specialist,” the judge said. “As such he has proven leadership skills, and given the strong commitment he demonstrated during his time as a participant, becoming a mentor was a very natural transition.”
On a recent Monday night, Shonsky joined a couple of dozen others for the weekly meeting of the Veterans Court alumni group, which provides a chance outside of court for the ex-offenders to build supportive relationships.
A year and a half after graduating, Shonsky tries to make each meeting. He has become a good listener.
“I was a person that didn’t care,” he said. “Now, I’m a calmer, easier person to get along with.”
Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com