Witnessing opportunity:

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles about the Dunkirk Treatment Court. It focuses on the opportunities provided to college students through internship.

SUNY Fredonia criminal justice major Tom Benati, the newest of Dunkirk City Court Judge Hon. Walter F. Drag’s interns, wanted an internship that would provide opportunities to observe the realities of today’s court systems. He is currently meeting that goal. A significant part of Benati’s week involves his assistance with the Drug/Alcohol and Mental Health Courts.

At one time, the Treatment Courts had their own interns. LeeAnn Lazarony was the first intern in 2002. She went on to work for the Probation Department, and then became the current Treatment Court Coordinator.

Lazarony explained the transition away from interns dedicated to the Treatment Courts. As a result of budget considerations, Lazarony now works throughout the county.

“I perform many functions in different locations,” she said.

Therefore, it is now preferable to have interns assigned to a basic location, the Dunkirk City Court Systems.

The financial situation of New York state has impacted the plans of some graduating college seniors as well.

“I had wanted to work with the state legal system, but there’s a hiring freeze,” Benati said.

Lazarony was quick to mention a possible lead with a private law firm. “Networking is crucial,” she said.

Judge Drag said, “This (interning) has opened doors for people to get jobs. We had a student who was hired right after graduation as a probation officer. Another started grad school and was hired for parole and corrections in Atlanta. Some of our graduates have gone on to law school and others have become counselors in the county clinic.”

Interns often keep in contact through Facebook. Lazarony stated, “We try to help mentor. It’s systemic – one thing leads to another. You learn how to conduct yourself professionally in the legal system. It raises their self-confidence. They mature through their time. It’s a maturity, not being jaded.”

Judge Drag noted, “We give them knowledge about what we’ve done, how the system works.” Drag teaches a course called Law and Society at SUNY Fredonia. He said, “Most people get their notion of the American and legal justice system from TV and movies. This (experience) gives them some ‘flesh and bones’ behind the stereotypes.”

Benati completed a thesis about legal sensationalism. He said, “You become aware of what is needed to convict.”

Caseworker Lazarony is warm and enthusiastic, displaying passion for her mission both as Treatment Coordinator as well as mentor for interns .

She said, “I tell them I want you to be able to do my job – deal with clients, co-workers, bosses, the team.”

She expressed appreciation of the career path her internship forged for her. She stated, “I want to give back and help other students have the opportunity.”

For Benati, finding the internship wasn’t difficult. He discussed the possibility with the chairperson of the criminal justice department at the college, Daneleea Petrka Benton. Interns with Judge Drag contract for 120 hours per semester. This includes observation, participation in treatment team meetings, reviewing and attending criminal and traffic cases, claims, and disputes, building a portfolio, meeting with a faculty site supervisor, midterm and final evaluations by Judge Drag, and writing a five to 10 page paper. Interns become familiar with the work of the District Attorney (prosecutor), Public Defender and defense counsel, probation officers, interpreters, police agencies, and service providers. Three college credit hours are earned for participation.

Sixty interns have been placed in this formal program. There are very different responses from the interns. Only one intern didn’t stay with the program. Judge Drag noted that summer internships are also available. Although there have been interns from Niagara University and the University of Buffalo, the majority are students at SUNY Fredonia.

President Horvath was presented with a certificate of appreciation in July of 2013 for SUNY Fredonia’s commitment to this opportunity.

Judge Drag’s commitment to this program is evident. He said, “We try to get people to understand the be-all and end-all of how the system works. We’re very happy with the quality of interns and the cooperation of the college.”

Judge Drag’s support of the intern program is matched by his dedication to the Treatment Court program. He, Case Manager Lazarony, and the treatment team have created a supportive, structured format that promotes success. It is fascinating to learn about and to observe.

NEXT WEEK: How the Drug Treatment Court in Dunkirk functions.

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