NH News
2:01 pm
Wed February 22, 2012

Alternative Sentencing Program Faces Verdict

Recovering alcoholics can usually pinpoint their rock-bottom. For Michael Hagar, it was the night of July 28, 2009. That evening, he met up with some friends to drink behind the Hannaford’s supermarket in Keene. 

“And that is where the whole incident took off from,” said Hagar.

Behind the grocery story, Hagar believes he drank about 18 beers. Then someone jumped him, hitting him in the face with a log. His pants and wallet were stolen. Gushing blood and enraged, he staggered into the store's parking lot.

“I smashed the windows out of a couple vehicles, and I guess I chased one of the owners away from it,” said Hagar. He doesn’t have any memories of the incident.

He was arrested and taken to a local hospital to have his broken nose set in place. There, he assaulted a police officer.

"I guess I freaked out when they tried to put me in the CAT-scan,” said Hagar. “And once I woke up in Westmoreland Jail, I said to myself, ‘This is enough. I’ve got to make a change in my life.’”

Hagar was charged with four felonies and two misdemeanors.

According to Joseph Frankel, Hagar’s court-appointed public defender, “Substantial jail time was not out of the picture.”

But instead of prison, Hagar was given a chance. He was allowed to enroll in something called the Alternative Sentencing Program. Sometimes called ‘drug court,’ this is a rehabilitation opportunity for criminals with substance abuse issues or mental health disorders.

Cheshire County was the first in the State to have alternative sentencing. It is based on a national model, and has expanded to other New Hampshire courts.

For up to a year, participants are given access to intensive drug and alcohol counseling, anger management tools, therapy, and medication. They also must take weekly drug screening tests.

It isn't a zero-tolerance program, but the demands placed on a life-long alcoholic like Hagar are high.

“We are designed to help these people, because we know that if they get their act together, their life together, they become a part of society and pay back into the County and State, instead of being paid by the County because of their misdeeds,” said Michael Potter, head of the Cheshire County program.

For people with substance abuse problems, jail often becomes a revolving door. Recidivism rates are at nearly 50-percent.

By getting clients sober and teaching them how to stay sober, the Alternative Sentencing program cuts that recidivism number in half.

That's important, because it saves taxpayers money. Less needs to be spent on corrections, court costs, hospital admissions and police. But Cheshire County, like every county in the state, is under pressure to cut its budget.  Alternative Sentencing and its $300,000 price tag is eliminated in the draft budget now being debated by county officials.

“I feel bad, because it is obviously a great program. Obviously people have been able to take advantage of it,” said Republican John Hunt, State Representative and Chair of the County Executive Committee.“But our charge as legislators is to help the tax payers right now.”

After a year in the program, Michael Hagar returned home to his wife and three daughters. He is sober, working as a plumber and supporting his family.

“This program transformed my whole life, every aspect of it, you know,” said Hagar. “Not just the physical aspects of addition, but my spirituality. I can actually believe in something besides an alcohol bottle.”

Katie, Hagar's 10-year-old daughter, sees the change perhaps more than anyone. She remembers what life was like before her dad stopped drinking.

“If felt like he was becoming a stranger,” says Katie. “It was like, I couldn't give him a hug everyday when I got home from school. It was, just… it wasn't fun.”

She added, “He's much better now.”

The County Delegation votes on the budget and the fate of the alternative sentencing program next month.