Taking a different path

 

K.C. MYERS

 

February 19, 2006

Cape Cod Times


BARNSTABLE - Jahmil Benthall's story begins like so many gang members, convicts and drug addicts:

''I didn't really have a mom or a dad,'' he said.

 

Left a virtual orphan because of his mother's heroin addiction, he bounced from relative to relative in the public housing projects of Newark, N.J.

 

His 2002 arrest on Cape Cod for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in West Yarmouth ended his life of drugs and crime - for now anyway - and may have given him a lot more.

 

Benthall, 25, graduates Tuesday from the Barnstable Action for New Directions (BAND) Program, an intensive program combining the courts with drug treatment.

 

All participants have been arrested for nonviolent, drug and alcohol-related crimes, and are given the option of joining BAND or going to jail.

 

Started in 2002 by the Barnstable County District Attorney's office, those accepted to the program submit to a highly structured system that lasts up to two years, requires multiple drug tests and weekly sessions before Barnstable District Court Presiding Justice Joseph J. Reardon. They must get jobs, seek stable housing, health insurance and take other steps to become productive, successful citizens. During weekly visits, Judge Reardon has two choices: reward the clients for their success or, if they test positive for drugs or violate a rule, impose sanctions or remove them from BAND.

 

Only 60 percent of the participants have gone on to graduate since the program began, said Jud Phelps, program director.

Of those, 78 percent have not been arrested again since 2003, according to the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) systems. The program's 22 percent recidivism rate compares favorably to the 60 percent re-arrest rate of the inmates who have gone through the Barnstable County House of Corrections behind-bars treatment program, according to an independent audit which looked at inmates three years after release. The jail's drug treatment lasts only six months.

 

Arguably, BAND costs less than a year in jail: $15,000 versus about $40,000, said Phelps.

 

But some of that savings gets cancelled out by the extra cost to staff the probation department to handle the BAND clients.

''In the end, if you have productive citizens, it's better than the alternative,'' Phelps said.

 

According to Benthall, it's worth it. ''I just always needed guidance and the only place I ever got it was drug court,'' he said.

 

The Courtyard By Marriott in Hyannis, where he's worked for more than one year, named Benthall 2005 Employee of the Year out of 50 other staffers.

 

He lives in a $900 a month apartment on 6A in Sandwich with a girlfriend, who was raised in a middle-class family.

''You should see where he came from,'' said his girlfriend, who didn't want her name published. ''Every single one of his aunts and uncles are either drug addicts or unemployed.''

 

Benthall's brother was shot and killed over a dice game, he said. Benthall supported himself as a teenager by buying candy bars from a factory, then selling them for $2 a piece at the Newark International Airport. If you ever bought a candy bar from a baby-faced teen posing as a member of the Newark High School wrestling team, you probably helped Benthall buy a car.

 

A visit with a friend to Cape Cod as a teenager gave Benthall hope he could escape Newark. But then he started dealing marijuana, and that led to his arrest in 1999. Benthall made the $25 bail, and fled for Newark. Benthall's Cape Cod adventure may have ended right there, if he hadn't had a child with a woman from the Cape, if he hadn't come back to visit and been at a party that the police broke up in 2002. Arrested for violating his parole, his lawyer told him he could join drug court or go to jail.

 

''I was so scared of jail,'' Benthall said. For the first six months in BAND, he was still scamming, Phelps said.

''But then something happened, I don't know what,'' Phelps added.

 

It's also hard to know who will succeed in the long run. Once BAND ends, the clients are private citizens. They could start using drugs and alcohol and the only way to know is if they come back into the courts. Phelps only hopes after two years, Benthall's success will continue.

 

''I live in a nice apartment, my head is so clear,'' Benthall said. ''It just feels so good to be trusted.''

 

K.C. Myers can be reached at kcmyers@capecodonline.com.

 

By the numbers

 

The arrest rate of 60 BAND participants from 2003 to present:

 

22 percent of graduates arrested during and up to 2 to 3 years after BAND

75 percent of those who dropped out or were kicked out of BAND were arrested during same time period

* Source: CORI analysis by Gosnold of Cape Cod

 

Other indicators

 

12 months after joining and still participating in BAND:

 

Alcohol use: 59% drops to 6%

Illegal drug use: 62% drops to 7%

Unemployment: 62% to 28%

Unstable housing: 73% to 48%

Emotional problems: 67% to 50%

54 percent who needed health insurance got it

45 percent of those needing primary care clinic got one

 

* Source: Independent audit by Brandeis University. (An independent audit was necessary to keep the $1.3 million, three-year federal grant, which ended 2005. Currently the program is funded with $200,000 from Barnstable County and state grant)

 

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