By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The fatal shooting of a New York City police officer on Tuesday has turned a spotlight on a court-mandated drug treatment program that kept the accused killer out of jail as part of a national effort to find alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.
City officials reacted angrily to the news that Tyrone Howard, 30, had avoided prison for dealing crack cocaine earlier this year through a drug diversion program.
"He’s a poster boy for not being diverted," said Police Commissioner William Bratton on Wednesday.
But advocates for such programs, intended in part to decrease overcrowding in prisons, warned against drawing conclusions based on one incident.
"It's all about reducing probabilities," said Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "That doesn't mean that things won’t happen."
There are 2,734 so-called drug courts in the United States, with the first established in 1989, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
A 2009 report by the New York State Unified Court System said the average number of active participants statewide per month was 7,253.
Howard has been charged with murdering Officer Randolph Holder, 33, with a bullet to the head on Tuesday night in the city's East Harlem neighborhood.
The debate over his case is unfolding as the country tries to address ways to deal with unsustainable prison populations.
Court records obtained on Thursday shed light on how two state judges determined Howard was a candidate for the diversion program despite his lengthy criminal record.
New York City has approximately 10 adult drug courts to which judges can transfer defendants who do not have any prior violent felony convictions.
A judge may impose treatment in lieu of prison based on a risk assessment. Upon completion of a treatment program, a case can be dismissed.
Howard had been arrested in October 2014 for selling crack. On May 14, Justice Patricia Nunez in Manhattan told Howard she would vacate his guilty plea if he completed a two-year treatment program, according to transcripts.
Howard expressed concern that prosecutors might charge him separately for 50 bags of crack found at his home.
"So I just don't want to be doing my program and come a new indictment and you give me 12 years," he said. A prosecutor subsequently said Howard would not face additional charges.
At the time, Howard, who had been convicted numerous times for selling and possessing drugs, was out on bail.
His case had been sent to drug court by another judge, Edward McLaughlin, over prosecutors' objections.
According to a December 2014 transcript, McLaughlin said he had written two words on a notepad after reviewing Howard's history of drug addiction: "Why not?"
Prison had not helped, McLaughlin said, referring the case to Nunez's court for assessment. On Wednesday, McLaughlin defended his decision in an interview.
Howard never finished the treatment program and missed a court date before becoming a suspect in a Sept. 1 gang-related shooting.
John Jay College's Butts said studies have shown that adult drug courts reduce recidivism and crime rates.
"On balance, it contributes to public safety," he said.
But Eugene O'Donnell, a John Jay professor and former police officer, said the case involving Howard demonstrates that a balance must be struck between prison alternatives and protecting the public.
"We have to do better at discerning who a danger to society," he said.
Judge Nunez declined to comment and through a court employee said she would address the case on Nov. 12, when she is scheduled to sentence Howard on the drug offense.
On Thursday, a parade of defendants appeared before Nunez in a Manhattan drug court: a man successfully undergoing treatment, a woman who had failed a urine test, and a man who had secured a new job.
The cases proceed differently than those in regular court. Defendants often converse directly with the judge instead of through a lawyer and she either offers encouraging words or admonishments.
"It was you who gave me a chance," one woman told Nunez, adding that she might be dead if not for court-ordered treatment.
But her case also showed that defendants sometimes return: she was back on charges of bringing contraband into a prison.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold)