By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO April 27, 2004 Its no crime to fall down. Its a crime not to stand up, County Court Judge Frank LaBuda told over two dozen participants in the Sullivan County Drug Court on Friday.
The 12-18-month-long program is designed to be an alternative to prison for select non-violent drug offenders, and it graduated two last week.
LaBuda works with the group weekly, along with other volunteers, to advise and encourage the drug offenders to improve their lives and avoid drugs.
Not all of them make it. All members are drug-tested regularly. Repeat failures result in dismissal from the program and will land the offender back in jail. An additional arrest is also grounds for immediate disqualification, said Program Director Scott Forbes.
But some do make it. Max Gordiets was one of the successful ones, graduating after 13 months. He was enrolled in the program after spending seven months in jail but is now attending college, where, he said, I read books, educate myself.
While being recognized Friday at the County Courthouse in Monticello, LaBuda reminded him that without this program, you would be in prison now.
Speaking afterwards, Max said he had learned a lot. . . . People my age are still making mistakes. . . . I am not going to make the same mistake again. I dont think about what if? anymore. Right now, I am thinking about what can I be?
Domingo Nunez graduated after 14 months. He is back to work and supporting his six children who live in Connecticut and New York.
I work every day, seven days a week, he said.
He was ecstatic as he received his certificate and gold coin. Nunez thanked the volunteers of the drug court committee.
I got a lot of help from them.
LaBuda viewed the program as advantageous to the community in several ways. The individuals who progressed, and eventually graduated, would be saving their lives and the lives of others, he told them. The court is also a financial bargain compared to the $106 a day he said it would cost the county to lock them up.
The problems they face today in 2004 are not all that different than what people faced 2,000 years ago, he said.
He quoted the Roman general and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who spoke about taking things one day at a time, just as one of the participants said he was doing.
Always concentrate on the positive, LaBuda advised another.
New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye, a Monticello native, started the program last year. She contacted LaBuda for help, and he, in turn, hired Forbes to coordinate it. The program is still a work in progress.
We change it all the time, said Forbes.
Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen is one of the few people who makes the critical decision on which candidates can enter the program.
The Drug Court Committee is under a lot of pressure, he said. This is not a plea bargain tool.
Some of the participants in the program would have winded up in state prison, said Lungen.
We take a gamble, added Lungen. The most important thing is they put their lives together.
Melissa Stickle, a drug and alcohol counselor and one of the volunteers who works with the program, said, The ones who graduated have come a long way.
LaBuda added, You just cant be overwhelmed by life. That is a big problem.
He was visibly enthusiastic about his role, calling it unique in American justice. Labuda said his position in the program was that of a father figure. . . . Historically, justices have never been involved in the treatment of crimes.
In this program, he said, the judge was involved directly and personally in hopes of having an impact.