For most people, the Noel Judicial Complex in Warwick is synonymous with bad news. But for 36-year-old Archer DiAngelo*, the time he spent inside Courtroom 4C over the past few years quite literally saved his life.
“Without the program, I’d probably be dead right now,” DiAngelo admitted at his graduation ceremony from Rhode Island’s Adult Drug Court in March. Hair slicked back and a nervous smile on his face, the former fentanyl addict from East Providence was dressed for the occasion in a black pinstripe shirt and matching suspenders. After four years in the program, DiAngelo was finally able to claim victory over a year without drugs, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I just wanted to thank all of you for this opportunity,” DiAngelo said, concluding his speech to rousing applause. “I’m excited. This program changed me, and I’m thankful for that.”
Probation officer Arthur Robinson and case manager Kaitlin Swinson were both quick to add their praise.
“You really took advantage of this opportunity,” said Robinson. “Hopefully you’re in a better place now than when you first walked in.”
“This is well-deserved,” affirmed Swinson, beaming. “You’ve managed to maintain your sobriety as well as full time employment. I could not be prouder.”
Now in its 17th year, the Adult Drug Court (ADC) was started by the late Superior Court Magistrate Gordon Smith in 2003 as a diversion program aimed at nonviolent felony offenders with serious substance abuse issues.
Participants need not have been arrested for a drug offense, and can enter the program with any felony charge that isn’t a violent crime so long as addiction is determined to be the driving factor behind the offense. The ADC team—comprised of Superior Magistrate John J. Flynn, two case workers, a social worker, and representatives from the offices of the Attorney General and the Public Defender—assess the link between each crime and the defendant’s potential substance abuse issue to determine whether the individual is eligible for the program. As a general rule, defendants charged with manufacturing or distribution of drugs are discouraged from entering the program unless it is clear that their dealing is the result, and not the source, of their addiction.
In order to enter the Drug Court, participants must plead guilty to the offense(s) they were charged with and agree to a pre-determined sentence that they will serve if they fail to complete the program. If they succeed, however, the felony charges are expunged from their record and sealed, as if they never happened.
The Drug Court’s initial objective was to get repeat offenders out of the prison cycle by offering treatment and counseling as an alternative to prison time. However, according to Magistrate Flynn who has headed the program since Magistrate Smith’s death in 2012, the opioid epidemic has switched the focus of the program.
“Within the last five years, I’ve seen it more and more where we’ll call a calendar and the person’s not there because they’ve overdosed,” he said. “Beyond prison, we’ve got to get these people some help because they’re dying.”
With this goal in mind, Flynn has run the Drug Court for the past eight years as a strict program of tough love.
“At a bare minimum, please remember what you learned here,” Flynn told DiAngelo on his graduation day. “I do not want to see you back here in handcuffs, getting re-arrested, being one of those people in and out of the system.”
Given the Adult Drug Court’s positive track record for graduates, Flynn has good reason to be optimistic. DiAngelo was among the six Drug Court participants who marked the first graduating class of 2020, but he is one of over 460 graduates to complete the program since 2013, when the Drug Court began official data collection.
The participants seated in the courtroom at the graduation varied widely in age, race and gender, which Magistrate Flynn noted is typical of any Drug Court session.
“It’s about two-thirds male, one-third female, but substance abuse disorders don’t discriminate,” he said. “There's one guy who's a registered nurse. You'll have people who don't have a job. Male, female, rich, poor; we get a pretty solid mix.”
Rhode Island is one of several states with a designated Veteran’s Court. However, veterans with serious substance abuse issues are often referred to Drug Court for more intensive treatment. Flynn estimated that about 10% of current ADC participants are veterans.
There have been 131 people who failed to complete the program over the past seven years, as well as several participants who died of an overdose during the program while trying to get clean, according to Flynn. While overdose fatalities are devastating, Flynn said that it’s incredibly rare for participants to complete their walk through the program without stumbling along the way.
“I tell everybody: Relapse is a part of the process,” said Flynn. Even if it takes years in the program, learning to stay clean for 12 months straight is what prepares participants for a future that is completely crime-free, he said.
For felons outside the Adult Drug Court, statistics from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections 2019 Recidivism Brief show that substance abuse crimes often become a cycle: 73% of re-offenders locked up on drug charges have already been to prison for a prior drug-related offense.
According to the Recidivism Brief, nearly 33 percent of all formerly incarcerated people get sentenced for a second offense within a year of being released. This figure, which has increased over the past decade, is more than four times the Adult Drug Court’s highest ever recidivism rate of 7.4% (recorded in 2012).
In fact, recidivism rates for drug court graduates have steadily been decreasing since 2014, with every single graduate remaining incarceration-free in both 2017 and 2018.
In addition to the Adult Drug Court, Rhode Island is also aiming to combat recidivism early with its Juvenile Drug Court, which is housed in the Garrahy Complex in Providence and run by a Family Court magistrate. In 2019, 150 minors who committed drug offenses or who had drug or alcohol issues were diverted to the Juvenile Drug Court, up from 72 in 2018. Like the Adult Drug Court, the Juvenile Drug Court follows a six-to-12 month program of intensive court supervision, drug treatment and educational and employment services. The program shares the ADC’s goal of keeping people out of the criminal justice system and aims to increase the number of minors who receive treatment instead of prison time.
Anthony Giatelli*, who graduated alongside DiAngelo from Adult Drug Court in early 2020, hopes to add his name to the list of program participants who are breaking the cycle, using Drug Court as an opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system for good.
“I didn’t make it yet,” he said humbly. “I made it to this, but I got the whole rest of my life. Hopefully it’s only going up.”
Giatelli, 28, was raised in Easton, Massachusetts by his mother and a father figure that faded in and out of the picture. Though the black sweatshirt he wore to his graduation featured smiling Lion King animals cheering, “Hakuna Matata,” Giatelli confessed that growing up he worried constantly about fitting in, often feeling out-of-place among the other kids in his grade. It wasn’t until high school, however, that he tried using pills to fix the problem.
“I turned into a chameleon, doing anything to try to fit in. I hung out with this crowd, that crowd, and ended up in the f*cking heroin crowd,” Giatelli said in an interview. “They weren’t really my friends, they just wanted something from me. Money. Ride. Drugs.”
After graduating high school, Giatelli sobered up in order to apply for work and became a carpenter at a construction company. But after some time on the job, he fell back into old friend groups and old patterns. Before he knew it, he was spiraling.
“My life was unmanageable. I couldn’t hold down a job, pay my bills, nothing,” Giatelli admitted. “And then I got caught. Fentanyl possession.”
Though he describes it as a nightmare, Giatelli remembers only fragments from the night of his arrest the summer of 2018.
“I blacked out so hard,” he said. “I shouldn’t even have been there. I was driving my mother’s car to visit her in Swansea, and I took a wrong turn and ended up going south on Route 24. I blacked out—everything after that is fuzzy but next thing I remember, the car was parked, and I was on the phone screaming at my father.”
This was how police found Giatelli over two years ago in Newport. He was transported to a police station where he spent the weekend. He remembers how angry his mother was when he called her, how disappointed he was in himself, but he was so deep into his addiction that even an arrest wasn’t enough to deter him.
“When they let me out, I had to hitchhike, then catch a bus back to my car to drive back up to Swansea, but I didn’t stop there. I went to Fall River, got high with more of the same stuff I got locked up with and then went home,” Giatelli remembered. “God, what was I doing? It’s crazy, I don’t even recognize myself.”
While Drug Court requires a minimum of 12 consecutive months of sobriety for participants to graduate, Giatelli was over 20 months clean on his graduation day. Like some individuals who admit to their addiction early on, Giatelli began treatment and therapy several months before his admission to the program. If a participant has a consistent record of clean drug screens and is working with rehabilitation services prior to entering Drug Court, the team will include those months in the total amount of time sober, which can speed up graduation for especially diligent participants.
And from a past as an addict who turned to opiates for everything, Giatelli transformed into a model student, fully committed to his recovery.
“You are one of the rare ones,” Magistrate Flynn told him on his graduation day. “Every screen you took in the last 12 months has been clean. Somewhere around 49, 50 drug tests. All clean. This is a quicker case than most, an ideal case so to speak. You knew what you had to do, from day one you did it, and you did it right.”
As he accepted his certificate and the Dunkin’ Donuts gift card that, during the coronavirus pandemic, replaced the usual celebratory slice of cake, Giatelli was polite but stoic. Standing alone after the ceremony, however, he shook his head in wonder.
“I got sober the day after the Fourth of July, 2018. This is the longest sobriety I’ve had,” he said, marveling at how much his life has changed in less than two years. “I live by myself now, not with my parents. I have a job. Wow.”
Giatelli, who struggled with addiction for over a decade, now lives with his girlfriend and her pet cat in an apartment in his hometown of Easton. Fortunate enough to have kept his job throughout treatment and during the program, Giatelli credits his carpentry position at a construction company for helping him develop positive habits throughout the recovery process.
“A job is so important. Something to wake up for, keep you responsible,” he said. “Once you get into a routine, it gets better.”
And while the rows of Courtroom 4C are filled with the parents, spouses, and children of graduates, Giatelli’s parents and brother are notably absent. While they are fully supportive of him and his mission to keep clean, Giatelli was determined to keep the ceremony a secret from them.
“I told nobody. I don’t want my family to come to this,” he said. “If I can bless them with anything, it’s never to come back to a courthouse for me ever again. Even for a good thing, because a bad thing is what started this good thing.”
Though graduation day marks the end of the program and the beginning of lifetime sobriety for some people, for others the finish line is far from view. After the graduates received their diplomas and exited the courthouse to a sunny March day, Flynn turned his attention toward the prospective participants in the room.
“Hopefully this gave you an idea of the potential the program will have for you if you are successful,” he told the half-dozen current and prospective participants.
However, the Drug Court model isn’t the best fit for all users.
“We have definitely run into cases where people deal to support their addiction,” said Malena Lopez Mora, the Attorney General’s office representative at the ADC, but she explained that typically, welcoming a drug dealer into the program is essentially like saying, “Here’s a whole room of free clientele!”
“The other thing the numbers have shown,” she said, “is if they’re dealing and they don’t have an addiction—maybe they use, but they’re not really addicted—having to go to these meetings can actually cause them to become addicted.”
Arthur Robinson, the probation officer on the ADC team, agreed. “Research state[s] that putting someone who is low-risk in a highly structured program tends to be counterproductive,” he said.
“Providing too much treatment or too much supervision is not merely a potential waste of scarce resources,” explained Dr. Doug Marlowe, a drug rehabilitation expert from Virginia. “It can increase crime or substance abuse by exposing individuals to more seriously impaired or antisocial peers, or by interfering with their engagement in productive activities such as work, school, or parenting.”
In Flynn’s courtroom, the Adult Drug Court team works collaboratively to assess the progress of each individual in the program based on the results of random weekly drug tests and reports from counselors and treatment workers. While the ADC deals with addiction to all kinds of drugs, Flynn estimated that opiates currently account for “at least half” of all Drug Court cases. He added that between heroin and prescription pills, admission to the program for opioid-related crimes in recent years has significantly increased.
“It’s definitely ticked up,” Flynn said. “And I think the dangers are more, the struggle is greater. Now with fentanyl floating around and stuff being laced, in many instances people don’t even know they’ve used it.”
“There are dangers with any drug,” he added, “but opioids, those are the ones you see dying.”
In order to see these opioid addicts and others safely on the path to long-term recovery, Flynn tries to offer participants maximum freedom in how they choose to get clean, and lots of patience in the process.
“It's not going to be, ‘You have one bad screen, you’re gone.’ or ‘You miss a court date, you’re gone.’ You have to work with people,” he insisted. “And you try to keep their life as normal as possible. You can’t have someone live in a cocoon for 12 months.”
If an individual is having trouble, Flynn might request that they transition from outpatient to intensive outpatient treatment, or to residential treatment, but “I never tell people that they need to go to a specific counseling center for treatment,” he said. “You try to make it flexible.”
Part of this flexibility is the program’s weekly migration across Rhode Island. Drug Court starts on Mondays at the Licht Judicial Complex in Providence to accommodate people dependent on public transit for their daily commute, before moving south to the Superior Courts in Kent County on Wednesdays and Washington County on Fridays.
Medically-assisted treatment in the form of methadone or suboxone is also optional, and Flynn noted that the majority of Drug Court participants choose to use it because rather than creating a different addiction with new urges, the drugs block neural receptors from receiving or “feeling” the high.
“Access to that has helped a lot of people with the cravings they get,” said Flynn. “So we allow it. It’s like getting medicine for any other condition.”
Wherever possible, the team additionally makes an effort to eliminate financial barriers to participating in the program, which Flynn said has become much easier with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare has been incredibly helpful. We do have some federal funds to supplement people’s care or to cover additional drug screens,” Flynn explained, “but if they have been referred to Drug Court and don’t have insurance, we make them sign up for the Obamacare program [in Rhode Island].” Flynn added that though the program still uses several grants and other funds, the program was much more heavily reliant on federal funding prior to Obamacare. He is confident that the ADC will be able to get people the care they need using federal grants even if the ACA is struck down, but straightforward access to healthcare for the many participants that use it has no doubt been a benefit.
In addition to working through substance abuse issues with active participants, the Drug Court team decides at the beginning of each session whether or not to admit prospective participants. Admission to the program is based on information obtained through an intake form, as well as through conversation with the applicant and his or her lawyer. Sometimes the process is rapid and straightforward, but often, a period of deliberation is necessary to reach a conclusion.
Back in the now-silent courtroom that same day, a frown pursed Magistrate Flynn’s lips as he addressed Stephen Brook* of Warwick, a prospective participant in the Drug Court program.
Flynn was frank. “I have concerns. For you. This is your first offense in Rhode Island so your case started in Diversion Court, but they said, ‘We can’t deal with him. He’s got too much of a drug problem.’”
Brook’s striking blue eyes matched the shirt he wore over khaki slacks, giving him an amiable and collected air. Asked about his substance use, however, Brook didn’t hesitate with a response: “You name it, I’ve done it.”
As Flynn read over Brook’s drug history, his eyes widened. After a long pause, he lifted his head and added solemnly, “I don’t say this to be mean but you’re gonna be dead. On a scale from 1 to 10, this is a 10.”
At 40 years old, Brook has a history of drug use that stretches back three decades and across several states, but which started right at home in Rhode Island.
“The first time I did opioids I was 13,” recalled Brook, standing outside the courtroom during a break in the proceedings. “I had an older brother who was a heroin addict and I walked in on him, as younger brothers do, and saw him trying to shoot himself up. He was sick and I wanted to help, so I got the needle and put it in. Then I tried it, too. I’ve been doing it on-and-off ever since.”
Brook admitted to veering off track because of poor influences in his life. After using consistently as a young adult, Brook got clean and stayed sober for several years. He started working as a car salesman and thought his years of substance abuse were behind him until he became romantically involved with an addict that Brook refers to as his “partner in crime.”
“Six years clean and I threw it all away over nothing,” he said. “I can’t be trying to not use and coming home to an active addict.”
The charge that led Brook to consider Drug Court in the first place was an arrest for cocaine possession in Providence in early November 2018. However, his record in Rhode Island dates back to his days as a young adult, when he was charged with underaged drinking, receipt of stolen goods, and petty larceny at age 20. Brook also has a record in Florida and Massachusetts and admits to using opioids, cocaine, and several psychedelics, with his most recent arrest occurring in Pawtucket in the summer of 2020, this time for cocaine possession of up to 1 kg with intent to sell.
Though Brook concedes that the drug he now struggles with most is cocaine, he added that opiates have played a significant role in his substance abuse challenges.
“Your family life, work life, sex life, it gets intertwined with everything. Then it gets to the point where it comes before everything,” he said, pacing around the hallway near Courtroom 4C. “And especially with opioids, at some point it’s not even about trying to get high. It’s about not getting sick.”
Addiction cost Brook his job at the car dealership, and for the past year he’s been living off unemployment checks with his partner, feeding his habit with the money left over after food and rent. The possibility of having his record expunged is tempting, but Brook fears he won’t be able to successfully complete the Drug Court’s program.
“I’m professionally unemployed,” he candidly told Flynn once back in the courtroom. “My car just crapped the bed and I don’t live on a bus route. And I’m living with an addict. I just don’t want to set myself up for failure.”
Magistrate Flynn frequently reminds prospective participants that joining the program is entirely optional, emphasizing that success will only follow genuine effort from each individual participant. This time, though, Flynn seemed focused on the bigger picture.
“No one is going to make you do this if you aren’t comfortable. But at some point, you’ve gotta start making priorities,” he began. “Go into detox, get away from everything for 90 days. Long-term it might be the best thing for you. Get in this program and give yourself a fighting chance to get this right.”
“I know,” Brook said solemnly, “I went to a funeral last week for someone I grew up with.”
“Drug related?” Flynn pressed.
“Yeah, because of an overdose,” Brook responded. “I’m aware of how serious this is.”
Flynn admits that while cases like these are the easiest to admit into the program—if the individual is willing—they are the most challenging for the Drug Court team to manage over time.
“A guy or a woman who’s testing positive for fentanyl and you can see they’re spiraling, the people who you know are trying but continue to fall, those are the tough ones. They want to get clean… they just have obstacles in their life that make it difficult to follow through.”
Flynn added, “As a court, we should try to hold people to their promises but at the same time you’re dealing with a health issue. Some people say, ‘Oh just lock that guy up, teach him a lesson!” like it’s the easiest thing in the world. But who picks the kid up at school today? Who makes the kid’s dinner? Who pays the rent or the mortgage?”
“Here, it’s more important to realize that they’re here because they have an illness,” Flynn said finally. And for the Drug Court team, the reward of healing participants of that illness far surpasses any legal benefit.
“It’s rewarding to see the person who finishes the program, a guy struggling a year ago, at risk to overdose. You’ve seen it! Now they’re clean. They’re working. Family life’s better,” Flynn said, smiling. “You see change in people. It proves that the court system can help people, not just punish them.”
*All names of drug offenders have been changed to preserve the confidentiality of program participants.