The court has maintained a diversionary program for those convicted of felony drug charges that promotes recovery and responsibility for its participants.
It was 2007 when Ralph Fluellen was arrested and charged with his first major conviction: drug possession with intent to deliver.
At 18 years old, Fluellen was uncertain how this conviction would impact his future, especially his employment.
When Fluellen’s lawyer offered him the option to partake in Philadelphia Treatment Court — a year-long, voluntary program that helps drug users expunge felony convictions from their records — he said he jumped at the opportunity as a “chance to start over.”
It took Fluellen seven years to have the charge expunged. Fluellen is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in social work at Temple University. He graduated from the Community College of Philadelphia in 2016 with an associate’s in behavioral health and human services.
“I feel like I have a lot to offer back to my community and to the world,” Fluellen said. “I just want to give back and give hope like I was given there.”
PTC, which mostly accepts participants who are first-time offenders on felony drug charges, can look a lot like the traditional judicial system. There are lawyers, prosecutors, case managers and a judge. But the program is different in one central way: a verdict from the judge can often be a “second chance” for people like Fluellen, he said.
On the 10th floor of the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Filbert Street near Juniper, weekly court sessions either welcome new participants into the program or check on participants’ progress. The program requires participants to abstain from substance use, receive treatment and maintain communication with their case managers.
Justice Frank Brady, the treatment court’s presiding judge, speaks with participants about their progress, both in the program and in their lives. Matt Schmonsees, the coordinator of PTC, said the judge can hear as many as 75 cases in one session. Morning and afternoon sessions are held every Wednesday.
Brady takes the time to hear from each participant. If they miss multiple treatment sessions or test positive for substance use, he listens their side of the story and issues the appropriate sanction. Sanctions, essentially punishments, range in severity from having to write a 200-word essay to spending a week in jail.
“It’s like a big brother kind of thing,” Fluellen said. “He’s not really there to hurt you. He’s there to help you.”
Fluellen said his relationship with the judge was crucial because their conversations helped him reflect on his own decisions.
“You’re new to the program,” Brady said in one session to a participant who admitted to using cocaine during the previous week. “That’s what we’re here for. We want you to graduate.”
-Erica Bartlett, assistant defender at Defender Association of Philadelphia
PTC was the first court of its kind in Pennsylvania when it opened in 1997. An estimated 66 percent of drug court participants identified as multiple substance users at the beginning of the program.
Treatment providers and case managers at PTC work with participants to determine the best treatment option, which can include recovery housing, medication-assisted treatment and counseling.
According to a 2009 report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, PTC is a “promising, albeit imperfect example” of a judicial recovery program.
Erica Bartlett, an assistant defender at Defender Association of Philadelphia, has been involved in PTC since its inception. She said she has stuck with the program because of the court’s innate belief that jail is not an effective solution for addiction.
“One of the unique things about a drug court is that you actually see people get better,” Bartlett said. “In typical criminal justice, you usually see a client again only because they’ve gotten in trouble again. In drug court, you actually see them get better, you see them graduate, you see them achieve recovery and that’s appealing.”
“A lot of people who get involved in drug court say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done in their career,” she added.