PHILADELPHIA - Minor drug-possession charges have a pattern: Get caught, see a district judge, wait nearly a year for a county judge's conviction so treatment can begin. Most of those defendants never see the inside of a jail cell, but have a criminal charge hanging over them. Some, in the throes of addiction, don't live to see a final court date.
In July 2018, Bucks County, Pa., decided to try to break that pattern. Officials created the District Court Diversionary Program, which catches first-time offenders shortly after their arraignments and puts them into treatment immediately. If they complete the program, the charges are dropped.
Through last month, 610 people had passed through the program. But District Attorney Matthew Weintraub points to another statistic: Diverting minor cases at the district level frees prosecutors to pursue larger, more nuanced investigations. And compared with 2016, when he took office, the county court's caseload has dropped by nearly one-quarter, data show.
"The last thing that we want is to catch somebody in a spin cycle of the justice system, where they may be a minor offender because they suffer from substance abuse disorder," Weintraub said. "If we can treat that underlying problem quickly, we have a much better chance of helping that person live and accomplishing the ultimate goal: never seeing them again."
Members of the county's Drug and Alcohol Commission praise the program as the latest increment of criminal justice reform, a by-product of the shifting philosophies regarding drug addiction and incarceration. But the diversions offered by the county come with requirements.
Only misdemeanor, nonviolent drug-possession offenses are eligible, and the defendant can't have any prior convictions. Participants must complete "decisions classes," with curricula that address what led them to use drugs.
"My goal is not to collect skins and hang them on a wall," Weintraub said. "My goal is to keep people safe, including offenders. We need to, yes, make them accountable for their actions, but we have to treat the underlying issue, if there's ever going to be hope."
The program differs slightly from the drug courts offered by Bucks and other area counties, in that no cases are generated or referred to the county courts. The program is handled on the district level.
Montgomery County offers something similar: the Targeted Opioid Phase program, in which defendants in nonviolent cases receive a clinical assessment and begin a treatment plan after their preliminary hearings in district court.
In the first two years of Bucks County's program, success stories have abounded, according to Assistant District Attorney Ashley Towhey, who reviews potential cases for the program.
But others who handle drug cases regularly have identified gaps. District Judge Daniel Baranoski's courtroom in Penndel is one of the county's busiest. From that vantage point, he has seen an entire vital population excluded from the program.
More than half the eligible defendants were denied entry into the diversionary program because of prior records, and a majority of those who were denied had been arrested for opioids.
"It's a strong program and a good start, but I don't think we should be limiting this," Baranoski said. "This is basically the only program that gets people charged with possession into treatment at an early stage, and we're missing our target audience."
As a result, most who did complete the program were there because of marijuana offenses. And Baranoski, a former longtime narcotics detective, said it's almost impossible to find someone addicted to opioids who doesn't have prior arrests.
"So these opioid users are waiting months before seeing a judge in Common Pleas, and they're still not being sentenced to jail," he said. "There's nothing else being done. Why not get them into treatment six months earlier? It would save lots of lives."
Towhey, the assistant district attorney overseeing the program for Weintraub's office, acknowledged the high volume of marijuana cases. But she asserted that there is a value in pursuing those offenders, especially at a time when the drug's legality is hotly debated.
"A lot of people think marijuana is something that people are just doing recreationally," Towhey said. "But from what we've been seeing through the program, a lot of people have been using marijuana to self-medicate for other issues, and our thought process is to get them an evaluation so we can determine if they need some type of treatment."
Lower Providence Township Police Chief Michael Jackson agrees. His department in Montgomery County created a similar program in 2017. That program, Drug Education and Abuse Prevention, lets first-time, nonviolent drug offenders between 18 and 26 avoid criminal charges entirely if they complete a six-month program that includes conversations with District Attorney Kevin Steele and visits to the county jail and morgue - places where drug addiction can lead.
Given those parameters, most of the participants were caught with marijuana. But the message, Jackson argues, is still powerful: None of the 113 who completed the program has been arrested again.
"We just want people to make better decisions, and avoid a lifetime of taking drugs to deal with stress, anxiety, or pain," he said. "That's the whole goal: to find another outlet, find another avenue that you can use instead of turning to marijuana, opioids, cocaine, whatever the case may be."