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  • The variability in quality of street heroin can range from 0-90%, which greatly increases the risk of accidental overdose and death.
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Judge offers Drug Rehab




Bethel Park is conducting an experiment that could change the way the criminal justice system wages its war on drugs.

Every Thursday, in a bustling courtroom under the town's library, the scales of justice tip increasingly toward rehabilitation, not incarceration.

The experiment started 18 months ago, when heroin began washing over the South Hills. District Justice Robert Wyda, a former military lawyer and assistant prosecutor, saw increasing numbers of teenagers before him kids with charges ranging from drug possession to forgery.

No matter the offense, Wyda noticed one common source for the sins: Addiction to heroin.

Wyda saw another troubling detail. Most of the offenders' victims the people they stole from, the people they lied to, the people hurt most by their drugged misadventures were parents. As a father, he concluded there was only one chance these moms and dads had to save their kids.

They had to turn them in to the cops. Wyda admits that such action is "historically unprecedented" for this South Hills suburb.

"People are scared. They're scared for their kids. They don't want them to die from heroin," said Wyda. "But they're also scared about putting them into the criminal justice system. No one wants a loved one to face a criminal record. So I had to figure out a way to engender trust literally trust with parents in this community.

"They had to know it was OK to turn their kids into the police, that I would stand up for the rights of their children and I would help them get the help they need," he said.

"I'm not a police officer. I'm not a parole officer. In fact, it's my job to stand between the police and the kids, to make sure their rights aren't violated," Wyda said. "Unfortunately, however, we've reached a point where these kids could be dead tomorrow if we don't do the right thing today."

Wyda's solution: If an offender agrees to rehabilitation, gets help and stays clean, his or her charges never go to county court. No record. No stigma.

Justice is handled as locally as possible, and offenders make routine visits back to Wyda to prove they're staying sober.

So far, Wyda said, he has diverted more than 150 possible convictions into opportunities for rehabilitation. There were a few cases where youths returned to the courts, but he said the vast majority of them have remained clean so far.

Other cities have experimented with similar programs but rarely at the district justice's level. Philadelphia, York and West Chester, for example, have extensive "drug courts" set up to monitor the progress of convicts, especially those found guilty of narcotics possession.

Nationwide, there are now nearly 700 courtrooms primarily tackling drug abuse, but not one has been established at the magistrate's level in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Justice.

The heroin craze washing over Bethel Park, however, isn't unusual. Nationwide, juvenile drug-arrest rates jumped 41 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to statistics compiled by Pittsburgh's National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Wyda said he realizes treatment isn't a cure-all. Annually, more than 135,000 teens enter substance-abuse programs a 50 percent increase since 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The problem, federal researchers say, is that three out of every four kids ended up in substance-abuse programs by court orders or school-diversion programs without professionals determining which programs are best suited to handle the teen's problems.

Research recently presented by the National Insititute on Drug Abuse shows that youths in peer-group treatment sessions similar to adult Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous used 50 percent more pot after getting treatment. But teens who went through comprehensive programs with their parents ended up decreasing drug use by 71 percent.

Wyda uses professional screeners to tailor treatment for the young adults whom he judges. He said he doesn't hesitate to include parents in the programs if that will help a family cope with drug use.

Bethel Park's system seems to be working with advice from the police, prosecutors and social workers, Wyda said.

Wyda insists that he's "no social worker" and that his courtroom "means business."

The district justice has drug-analysis kits on his desk, ready to see if teens are lying to him. His catch phrase to offenders with a bad attitude: "See your parents? They're here because they love you. I don't love you."

So far, the police, district attorneys and a revolving ensemble of defense attorneys are on board. Wyda agrees the only way the experiment can continue, much less work, is if he keeps their trust.

Fueling the South Hills drug craze, said Assistant District Attorney Nicola Henry-Taylor said, is the "Eminem syndrome" bored white kids with good homes, good parents and a bad attitude.

"When did it become 'cool' to get arrested? To go to jail? Here, some young men and women treat it as a badge of courage. Some of them don't seem to realize that doing drugs, getting into trouble, hurting their parents, has consequences," Henry-Taylor said. "What's great about this courtroom is that they're given the chance to learn from their mistakes and become adults."

Bethel Park's Mike Delduca and his father, Armand, agree.

Mike was 21 before he ever tried a drug. Then came what Mike thought was a harmless snort of crushed OxyContin. A few months later, he was doing heroin. He was up to eight bags of heroin a day before his father became sick of him stealing, lying and loafing. Armand filed charges against his son with the Bethel Park police knowing Wyda would see that his son got medical help.

Mike Delduca, 22, has passed Wyda's latest drug test and strives to stay clean. The "Eminem" days are over, he says, thanks to a little tough love from his dad. No more scoring in Bloomfield, no more "oxies" from his pals in Bethel Park.

"I moved out on my own, and that was probably my first mistake. I was on the street, and one day someone gave me a pill and I fell into drugs. . It became a habit, an everyday habit. But Dad got me help. I was strong enough, and got off the stuff."

Not that it was an easy decision for Armand Dedulca to make the Brookline native moved his family to the suburbs to avoid drugs. Two years ago, he started noticing the same "junkie look" on South Hills teens. Then his son got hooked and failed rehab. Armand sat awake at night, debating if he should threaten him with jail or let him die.

"I weighed one against the other. But here I was, continuing to enable him by doing nothing. I figured I had to get him to stay clean. I thought it would be better to see him in jail, where I knew it was tougher to get drugs, than on the street. I made my decision and told him: 'Listen, I buried your mother. I don't want to bury my son.'"


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