Budget Cuts Could Signal End of Staten Island's Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities Program

Staten Island's Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities Program (TASC), which provides drug-treatment services instead of incarceration, might well be a victim of budget cuts. "On the Island, TASC is the only program offering those services, Christopher Pisciotta, Senior Supervisor for The Legal Aid Society's Criminal Defense Office in Staten Island, told the Staten Island Advance. “TASC plays a much larger role in Staten Island than some of the other counties,” he said. “This is sort of a linchpin, this is a major program.” (See also NY1 below)

The Legal Aid Society defends many of the people charged with drug related crimes and wants to see TASC stay. TASC has a proven track record, with about a 70% success rate. The Education and Assistance Corporation needs $250,000 by June 30th in order to keep the Staten Island TASC branch open for another year.

Staten Island Advance
Key Staten Island drug-crime program doomed
Published: Monday, May 09, 2011, 12:34 AM Updated: Monday, May 09, 2011, 5:32 PM
By John M. Annese

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- A "critical" program that places criminals into drug-treatment instead of jail plans to shut down its Staten Island office next month, leaving hundreds of addicts in the lurch in a borough considered the epicenter of a sprawling pill abuse epidemic.

Staten Island’s Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, or TASC, program, will close its doors by the end of June unless its parent agency, Education & Assistance Corp., can come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in slashed grant funding, the corporation’s officials say.

The decision would not only eliminate a program that last year saw more than 180 addicts through successful drug treatment programs, it would also cripple the borough’s highly regarded “drug court,” since TASC runs thousands of drug tests for the criminal court system.

The parent corporation runs similar programs in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, as well as in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Lance Elder, the corporation’s president, described closing the office as a “business decision,” since the Island’s program deals with fewer clients than the other TASC offices.

“If I start hitting where we have hundreds of people on the case load — we have to make some business decisions, for lack of a better term,” Elder said. “And trust me when I say we’re not happy to do it.”

The announcement has left prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment program officials reeling.

“It’d be a sad day for the criminal justice system if TASC no longer exists as of June 30,” said District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who called the program a “critical part” of the court system. “Without TASC, we have no one to do the screening, we have no one to do the drug tests. This would utterly dismantle treatment court.”

The Island office, which is run on a shoestring $250,000 budget by five paid employees and two volunteers, placed 159 convicted criminals in treatment programs last year, keeping track of their individual progress through drug-testing, follow-up interviews and court appearances. It also shepherded 183 people already in treatment through successfully completing their treatment programs last year.

TASC also conducted 7,410 drug tests in 2010, according to Donovan. Most of those were done on the behalf of the “drug court” program run out of Stapleton Criminal Court — where instead of jail, defendants are screened for placement in eligible drug and alcohol treatment programs, which include regular court appearances and supervision by a judge.

The program also saves the city and state money, Donovan said. Locking someone up in a city jail costs $76,000 a year, or in state prison, $55,000, he said, while a residential treatment program costs $20,000 a year, and a non-residential program, just $7,500.

Donovan said he’s rallying support to try to keep the program alive, and sent a letter to Elder challenging the decision. He also said he’d search for another vendor to carry on for TASC if the parent corporation can’t be swayed.

At the TASC office, which is tucked away on Van Duzer Street in Stapleton, between a small restaurant and an antique dealer, the case managers there work amid massive stacks of papers, unsure of their future.

“The majority of the drug problem right now has to do with oxycodone and Xanax,” said Sarah Anderson, of Mariners Harbor, the office’s program director.

The office has already seen layoffs, and one veteran employee there recently retired and agreed to work on a volunteer basis to spare another younger co-worker the ax. Without volunteer help, the office would be left with a single male employee to conduct drug tests on men, she said.

”You can’t run an agency on fumes. You need money,” Ms. Anderson said.

The case managers also keep track of their success stories, some of whom have become drug counselors themselves, or have gone on to own businesses.

“I did whatever drug was available, as long as I could be high during that day,” said Sean Hennessey, 28, a high school and college athlete from Great Kills.

Hennessey said he rationalized his drug use, since he had a college degree and a job, as a case manager for developmentally disabled children.

But he racked up four arrests, mainly for possession and driving while intoxicated, and lost that job.

He’d been through a drug treatment program before, but something “clicked,” he said, and he took TASC’s guidance seriously.

“It’s needed. It’s so needed.... They’re the mediator between us and the courts, so they have to know everything,” he said. “They care. That’s the thing. They actually care. You’re not a statistic.”

Today, Hennessey is a counselor at the YMCA Counseling Service in Eltingville, which runs intake programs for youths with substance abuse problems and information sessions for parents, a job he said he takes seriously.

”I can finally say, I’m a productive member at my job,” he said.

The program’s parent corporation, EAC, is funded by grants, contributions and program service revenue.

Elder said EAC has seen its budget slashed over the past two years, from about $23.5 million in 2009, to about $18 million last year, and has laid off numerous employees. About $3 million of that money went to serve TASC programs in 2009, and that number has been cut to about $1.7 million last year, he said.

TASC largely receives its funding from the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, and the City Council. It also, until recently, received a $50,000 Department of Education grant through Borough Hall on Staten Island, though that money has dried up, Ms. Anderson said.

The state DCJS has been directed to cut 7.9 percent from all 36 of the programs it funds including TASC, said agency spokeswoman Janine Kava. For TASC, that means a cut from $1.5 million in funding to $1.39 million, she said.

“The decision on how that money is allocated is left to the program,” Ms. Kava said.

Elder said EAC is under contract to offer 68 separate programs, and is required by those contracts to provide a level of services. “It’s not like we can shift money from one program to another,” he said, “I couldn’t pull it out and say, let’s put it into Staten Island.”

Nassau County’s TASC office may also end up on the chopping block, he said.

George Donovan, a retired NYPD detective, uncle of the Island’s district attorney and TASC’s first Staten Island program director, said he’s “livid” EAC is planning to eliminate a program he worked to bring to the borough in 1985. “There’s other ways that they could keep it open. You could cut services to some extent. You could give furloughs,” he said. A recovering alcoholic who’s now 73 years old and battling cancer, George Donovan said he was considering driving up from Florida, where he retired in 1990, to fight to keep TASC open here.

”I’m so angry with this EAC outfit,” he said. “If a program works, you hold onto it, and you don’t chip away at it until there’s nothing left.”

Joseph Sorrentino, a Staten Island defense attorney, also challenges Elder’s rationale for the move.

“First of all, it’s illegal,” Sorrentino said. “You cannot say you’re going to offer a program to all four of the other boroughs except Staten Island... Whoever’s doing this has not thought this through.”

A patchwork of other agencies, not TASC, handles incarceration alternative services in Manhattan.

On the Island, TASC is the only program offering those services, said Christopher Pisciotta, a Senior Supervisor for the Legal Aid Society. “TASC plays a much larger role in Staten Island than some of the other counties,” he said. “This is sort of a linchpin, this is a major program.”

Pisciotta wouldn’t speculate on whether Legal Aid would seek some sort of legal redress if the TASC office closes.

Luke Nasta, the executive director of Camelot Counseling Services, said the city probation department would likely have to pick up the work that TASC does. “If they don’t pick it up, Staten Island loses that alternative to incarceration,” he said.

“I think Staten Island should make plenty of noise about it,” he said. “It’s today. It’s not philosophical, it’s an essential need. To not have this service in one of New York City’s five borough’s is ludicrous.”

Closing the office “creates a crisis” for defendants already in the system, Sorrentino said.

“Once you eliminate TASC, who is going to assume those responsibilities? Who’s going to do the testing? Who’s going to do the monitoring? Who’s going to do the referral to the courts?” Sorrentino asked.

“It’s a moronic proposal and I think it’s gone this far because nobody’s brought it to the fore,” he said.


Deadly Rx epidemic by the numbers

The decision to shut down Staten Island’s Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities office came the same week a city health department study revealed just how deadly prescription drug abuse has become here.

In 2009, the study showed, 28 Islanders fatally overdosed on prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone. That amounts to one death roughly every 13 days.

On the Island, prescription drug overdoses outpaced traffic fatalities, homicide and heroin overdoses as causes of death. Staten Island saw 21 killed in car crashes, 16 homicides, and fatal overdoses in 2009.

Per capita, Staten Island by far leads the boroughs both in opioid prescriptions written, and in fatal overdose rates.

And the prescription drug overdose death rate on the Island has skyrocketed since 2005, when 11 Islanders died of fatal prescription doses.

Per capita, that amounts to 7.4 per 100,000 people — up 147 from the 3 per 100,000 residents in 2005.

The other four boroughs show siginficantly lower per capita numbers — 1.5 in Manhattan and Queens, 2.0 in Brooklyn and 2.8 in the Bronx.


News All Night
NY1 (IND) New York
May 9th 2011 9-10 PM

Lisa McDivitt: The Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, or TASC, has been operating on Staten Island since the mid 1980’s. It provides case management to people charged with non violent drug offenses, facilitating placement and treatment programs as alternatives to jail time. In 2010 it served 103 Staten Island Offenders, and officials say there isn’t another program like it on the island.

Daniel Donovan: Prescription drug abuse is on the rise on Staten Island, there’s a new population of people who are going to need this treatment, and they’re going to need the services of a TASC and drug treatment court.

Lisa McDivitt: TASC’s parent company relies on funding from the state and the city for this branch.

Lance Elder: We have faced extraordinary cuts since 07, we have lost about 1.6 million almost 1.7 million dollars in funding across all of our TASC lines.

Lisa McDivitt: The Staten Island branch of the TASC program is the smallest in the city, so it’s the first on the chopping block. But those in the Staten Island criminal justice system say it’s a valuable part of the process, for the good it does and the money it saves, costing $7,500 per person.

Christopher Pisciotta, The Legal Aid Society: In other Counties they may not play such a central role, but here in Staten Island they do, and without them someone would have to fill a vacuum.

Lisa McDivitt: The Legal Aid Society defends many of the people charged with drug related crimes and also wants to see TASC stay. Both sides say TASC is successful because it’s an independent agency, separate from the courts, the lawyers, and the treatment programs. It also has a proven track record, with about a 70% success rate. The Education and Assistance Corporation needs $250,000 by June 30th in order to keep the Staten Island TASC branch open for another year.

Daniel Donovan: If we no longer have TASC or another vendor who provides that service, people who should not be in jail will be going to jail.

Lisa McDivitt: On Staten Island, Lisa McDivitt, NY1.