York County Treatment Courts give people a second chance

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A York County judge and a team of others are convinced that the county's drug treatment courts, and not jail, are the reason for hundreds of success stories, and they have the facts to prove it.

December 1, 2016 was just an average Thursday for most people.

But for those who filled the seats at the Strand Capitol in York, it marked the beginning of a new era.

"The gratitude that I have for those individuals being part of my life and not abandoning me in my time of greatest need has exceeded any expectation that I could have for myself," said John Venanzi, who graduated from the Mental Health Court.

"We literally have had people who've come into the courtroom, high on heroin... within a very short period of time you'll see tremendous changes physically, mentally," said Judge John Kennedy.

Kennedy was part of the team that started the drug treatment court from scratch in 1997.

19 years later, it's changed his own philosophy and ideas.

"I guess I was a lock 'em up and throw away the key type person... but there's so much evidence out there, there's so much research that shows how well these programs work and we know that jail doesn't," said Kennedy.

Barb Chance is proof.

"I started my addiction in '86," said Proof.

For 28 years she went back and forth, in and out of jail, relapsing several times.

"They say, when you hit your rock bottom, you'll know it," said Chance.

In 2014, Chance was given her chance to enter the drug treatment court.

She prepared for days filled with meetings, counseling and drug tests.

"It's a challenging program, it keeps you on your toes and on your feet and I was working, every day, 7 days a week then... it was a challenge running the streets, trying to get the next one, so you gonna do this.. and I did it flawlessly, god willing, I did," said Chance.

Chance is one of hundreds of people who has graduated and gone on to lead a normal life after years of addiction and abuse.

But, Judge John Kennedy says Pennsylvania is behind the curve when it comes to criminal justice reform.

He claims the Commonwealth is wasting thousands of tax payer dollars by locking people up for non violent offenses.

"It's been Texas, it's been Virginia, it's been Georgia, it's been Michigan... they reduce the amount of money that they spend on jails, they reduce the amount of money they spend on corrections and they also lower their crime rate," said Kennedy.

For example, in 2015, 33 clients graduated from the York County Drug Treatment Court.

Those 33 people saved a total of 9,984 jail days.

One day behind bars costs tax payers about $83.

When compared to how much the treatment courts cost to run, the program is a cost savings of more than $400,000.

Trying to get a consensus in Harrisburg to implement change has been difficult.

"We are funded on what we can beg, borrow and steal," said Kennedy.

In the meantime, these graduated know they're lucky they were selected into the program.

Judge Kennedy says that for every person who walks across the stage, 5 others could join them if there was more money.

"I'm grateful and I hope someday that there's more funding for it," said Drug Treatment Court graduate, Faith Doran.

"I plan to participate in the court for as long as I can walk (hopefully helping others in your shoes) absolutely," said Venanzi.

York County operates four specialized treatment courts: DUI Court, Mental Health Court, Drug Court and Veterans Court.

Each person's case is reviewed and it's determined which court best suits the person's need.

If someone was charged with a DUI, it doesn't necessarily mean they would go through the DUI court.

If the person was arrested for being under the influence of drugs while they were driving, the drug court would be the likely route.

For more information about the treatment courts, click here.