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Experts from the Region’s Diversion Courts Discuss Alternatives to Sentencing

April 04, 2013

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge William Meehan, Magdalen Czykier, assistant prosecutor in the Essex County Mental Health Court Prosecutor’s Office, Corey Shdaimah affiliated with Philadelphia’s Project Dawn Court, and Mario D’Adamo from the Juvenile Branch of the Family Division of Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas based in Philadelphia, met at the law school on April 3 to discuss diversion and problem solving courts, courts which aim to rehabilitate individuals via regimented programs rather than strictly sentencing offenders to jail time.

Judge Meehan, who presides over Philadelphia Municipal Court’s drug court, which allows offenders who would potentially be facing jail time to go through a drug treatment program that is closely monitored by the court, said that the program has been very successful. Paramount over all other benefits of the program is that it builds trust – trust the individual in the program has in his or herself to rehabilitate, trust in the process the court is facilitating, and trust in court proceedings in general.

Those who have gone through drug court have also seen “extensive sobriety,” Meehan said. This lasting sobriety has the added impact of significantly reducing the number of repeat offenders, he added.

Czykier found a similar effect in the Essex County Mental Health Court. There, prosecutors are given discretion whether offenders are clinically appropriate to receive mental health treatment in a rehabilitation program as opposed to jail time, she said.

This discretion is important because many offenders have mental health illnesses which underlie a particular offense, she said. Since treatment would otherwise be unavailable to offenders, discretion to treat the illness underlying the offense, rather than incarcerating an individual for a particular act, ultimately is more effective in accomplishing the end goal of rehabilitating an individual, Czykier claimed.

Corey Shdaimah, who works with Project Dawn Court, a court that offers a regimented approach to rehabilitation for individuals with multiple prostitution offenses, says problem solving courts, like Project Dawn and those of her colleagues, are part of larger social issues. It is very important to measure such programs against the lack of effective health care and housing programs outside of the court, she said. Project Dawn is successful because participants get treatment, have access to the program’s resources after they complete treatment, and it is more economical than incarceration, Shdaimah explained.  Similar services outside of the program are hard to find, she added. 

D’Adamo agreed, what he found in Philaldephia’s Juvenile Court program is that access to treatment exposes participants to a network of counseling that they would not otherwise have. The court’s role has changed, however, D’Adamo said, formerly institutions that strictly adjudicated matters, courts now must consider elements of sociology and psychology if they are going to have a lasting effect, he concluded.

The Criminal Law Society hosted the event.