CONCORD — By the time you land in federal court as a defendant in a drug case, you’re in big trouble.
There are mandatory minimum sentences — longer for larger quantities of drugs — and a new push from federal authorities to get tough on anyone selling the deadly opioid fentanyl.
Still, for eight years the U.S. District Court here has offered some defendants a second chance: To get off drugs, to get their lives back.
The federal version of drug court is called the “LASER” docket (it stands for “Law-abiding Sober Employed Responsible”). Judge Joseph Laplante, who has presided over it since its inception, calls it a “test tube” for the rest of the country.
Just 55 individuals have participated in LASER since it began. Of those, 22 graduated; 21 failed (they either quit, were dismissed or were incarcerated); 11 are currently in the program; and one individual is about to return, according to Kevin Lavigne, deputy chief of U.S. Probation.
Laplante, who recently finished a 7-year term as chief judge of the federal court, heads up the LASER team, which includes Magistrate Judge Andrea Johnstone, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, defense attorneys and U.S. Probation; and a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.
There are four phases to the program, with increasing requirements for each. Participants must attend weekly courtroom sessions with a judge and check-ins with a probation officer, and there are sanctions for missed meetings or drug tests.
Laplante presides over most LASER sessions, but Johnstone takes a turn once a month; she was on the bench on a sunny fall afternoon when seven individuals — five women, two men — came in for the weekly check of their progress.
Johnstone engaged each participant in conversation, asking about their kids, work and attendance in 12-step meetings and other requirements. At times, it felt more like a therapy session than a courtroom.
One young woman told Johnstone about a confrontation she had with her boss. The judge asked how many hours she’s working at her two jobs, and told her she’s worried about the toll it could take on her health and well-being.
Another young woman who recently moved to Concord said she doesn’t know anyone here, and Johnstone assigned her “homework,” to research 12-step meetings in the area. It’s a good way to meet other people who are working on recovery, she said.
Both pre-trial and post-conviction defendants may be selected to participate in the LASER docket. Pre-trial individuals must first plead guilty and sign an agreement to abstain from drugs and alcohol and to participate in treatment, drug testing and self-help meetings.
Jonathan Hurtig is chief of the U.S. Probation and Pre-Trial Services office, which supervises individuals in the LASER docket. His probation officers act as “change agents,” he said. “We’re trying to change how people think and how they act so that they behave in a pro-social manner.”
At a recent forum on the federal court’s response to the opioid crisis, held at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, Hurtig said the mission of the LASER docket is “to bring about long-term, positive change” in people’s lives. “People arrive to us after a 20-year history of abuse ... and we have to undo everything that’s been done during that time in that small amount of time,” he said.
Hurtig said he’s seen how the LASER docket can change behavior, offering individuals intensive services that can include inpatient treatment, group and individual therapy, sober housing and medication-assisted treatment. It takes time, intensive resources — and something else: “At the end of the day, people care,” he said.
At the UNH forum, Judge Laplante said the federal court system remains “adversarial,” with prosecutors striving to prove guilt and defense attorneys trying to get their clients exonerated. But the different players in the system, including probation officers, also work collaboratively to try to help people get better, he said. “This is a little bit of a test tube,” Laplante said.
Drug trafficking and possession is a crime, Laplante said. “That complicates the issue because that means that in many cases, the doorway to treatment, the doorway to recovery, might be the criminal justice system,” he said. “That’s maybe not ideal but it is the reality.”
Last July, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to New Hampshire to announce a federal crackdown on distribution of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl that have been responsible for most drug overdose deaths here for years.
Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.) targets 10 “hot spot” places, and one of them is Hillsborough County in New Hampshire, Sessions said. “We are going to arrest, prosecute, and convict fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail,” he declared.
When it comes to synthetic opioids, Sessions said, “There is no such thing as a small case.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office ultimately decides whether to recommend pre-trial defendants for the LASER docket. At the UNH forum, Seth Aframe, New Hampshire’s assistant U.S. attorney, said he hopes that the increase in federal prosecutions out of Hillsborough County will have an unexpected by-product: more good candidates for the LASER program. “The surge potentially will bring in smaller-level dealers who are more likely to be addicts,”he said.
Judge Laplante hopes so too; there’s a long waiting list for defendants to get into drug court in Hillsborough County, he said. Charging individuals federally, he said, “might lead more of those appropriate treatment candidates to our court.”
But not everyone will get that chance. At the UNH forum, Aframe explained that he sometimes needs a lower-level dealer to testify against someone at the top. “If we put someone in the program, they’re not incentivized to cooperate with me anymore,” he said. “Ultimately, my job is to convict the people at the top of that chain, and some of those decisions are made for that reason.”
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Levin, a veteran federal public defender, told the UNH forum, “A surge in prosecution doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a surge of treatment in the community.”
Levin said he’s seen a grim difference in opioid criminal cases compared with drug cases in the past: “the lethality of the drugs.” He recently was assigned to represent a man, “and before I even met the client, he died of an overdose,” he said.
The criminal justice system was designed to enforce federal laws, not to deliver rehabilitation services, Levin said. But he too has seen the difference the LASER docket can make. “Some people who come into the federal criminal justice system are quite grateful for the intervention. They feel like getting arrested and being in the criminal justice system saved their lives,” he said.
“Somehow, coming to court, being in front of the judge every week, talking about your life and your recovery, is therapeutic for the participants. This is maybe the first time in their lives that someone has taken an interest in what they do from day to day, or their relationship with their kids, or what it’s like to be them.
And as a result, he said, “You see people transforming.”
At the recent LASER court session, a man with graying hair talked about how much he enjoyed a painting class he took to fulfill a “life skills” requirement. “I don’t have an artistic bone in my body,” he told the judge. “I can’t even draw stick figures.”
But painting seems to shut off part of his brain, and he’s better at it than he expected, he said. “I’m in the moment when I’m there, and that never happens,” he said.
Johnstone then gently told him, “Sorry to hear about your friend. That’s a bummer.”
It is, the man agreed. “I thought he was doing really well,” he said. “He was a couple years in sobriety. He had a good job ….”
It puts things in perspective, doesn’t it, Johnstone asked.
“You bet it does,” he replied.
Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.