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Saving Ryan

Why it was left to two Portland judges to bring this junkie back from the brink.

IMAGE: Rachelle Hacmac

Ryan Santana got his first taste at age 19.

The son of an engineer was a prep cross-country star, helping his Medford-area high-school team twice win the state 5A championships. He came to Portland State University in 2008 to study business, earning a 3.3 GPA his freshman year.

On a November night in 2009, Santana was hanging out in his Ondine Hall dorm room when a friend named Pat offered him a sheet of tinfoil filled with brown powder. Pat said it was opium, and he showed Santana how to light it and inhale.


"Then it hit me, this ultra-good feeling I could never describe," Santana says. "You feel like there are no problems with your life. All your stress, all your anxiety just goes away."

His problems were just beginning.

Four months later, by March of this year, he was shooting heroin straight into his veins. In April, he says he was kicked out of PSU for selling OxyContin to students to fuel his habit.

Soon he was living on the street—stealing to get high when he could, dope-sick with withdrawal when he couldn't. He got so desperate he used needles picked up off the floor of the public restrooms on West Burnside Street.

BETTER DAYS: Ryan Santana as a high-school cross-country runner. IMAGE: facebook.com

"I'm really, really lucky I'm not dead," he says. "I'm ready to be done with heroin. It's really hard. But I had this lesson—now I really don't want to repeat it."

Santana's story is not about a 20-year-old cured of addiction. It's too early for that chapter. Just two weeks ago he suffered at least his third relapse, cashing in an inheritance check for enough smack to keep him high for a day.

What separates Santana's story from conventional wisdom is this—it isn't shelter workers, drug counselors or psychotherapists who have labored the hardest to promote his recovery.

Instead, it's a pair of Multnomah County judges working in an already overburdened legal system. They and other judges have been forced to take on new roles as budget cuts shred Portland's social safety net to pieces.

Judge Michael McShane drove Santana across town in McShane's Subaru Outback to get him into detox, bought him shoes at the downtown discount store Ross Dress for Less and even helped him apply for a state food handler's license on McShane's office computer.

Judge Eric Bloch has counseled Santana from the bench, bought him food and helped him secure a spot in residential drug treatment.

Forget the image of a black-robed figure cloistered with law books and gavel. Multnomah County judges today are forced to act as front-line social workers—playing nanny in a state so lacking in basic services, judges otherwise must watch severely drug-addicted and mentally ill defendants walk out of court with virtually no help or supervision.

"It's not what a lot of us signed up for," says Judge Youlee Yim You, who, along with her staff, has spent hours helping some defendants find housing and jobs. "What we're trying to do ultimately is keep people from killing themselves, hurting other people and coming back [to court]."

Ten straight years of budget cuts in Multnomah County government—which provides the bulk of Portland's human services—have left our city's safety net with more holes than Ryan Santana's track-marked arms. And with a projected $1 billion state budget deficit this biennium, the situation will only get worse.

The crisis is transforming Multnomah County's judicial system in some shocking ways.

JUDGE BLOCH: Presiding over START Court on Sept. 10. IMAGE: Rob Delahanty

On the fifth floor of Portland's dilapidated, 144-year-old county courthouse, the churchlike pews in Judge Bloch's courtroom are filled with a rough-around-the-edges group of Multnomah County residents.

They range from their early 20s to mid-50s. They are white, black, Latino, Asian, gay and straight. There are mothers with children and men with shaved heads and tattooed teardrops on their cheeks. All are on probation for property crimes, addicted to drugs or alcohol, and part of a new program with no other quite like it in the nation.

On Aug. 27, Bloch sits behind his desk, reading glasses perched on his nose, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent lights overhead. He calls Ryan Santana's name.

Santana is here to atone for his July 7 conviction for first-degree burglary. He looks fragile and thin in his dirty jeans and flannel shirt, walking slowly to stand at a lectern facing Bloch. Santana has the pale and pockmarked face of an addict. As a nervous habit, he occasionally pulls on his oily strands of brown hair.

Case files stacked on his desk let Bloch keep close track of his defendants. And the latest reports on Santana are not positive. He's missed appointments with his probation officer and drug counselors. He also skipped appearing before Bloch three days prior, triggering a bench warrant.

"You're just not doing anything you're supposed to be doing, other than maybe staying clean," Bloch says. "You're like a shark. If you're not moving forward, you're going to drown."

Two days a week, Bloch meets with Santana and others assigned to the new START Court, short for Success Through Accountability Restitution and Treatment. Funded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, it's the latest in a series of experiments in Portland and across the country that are changing the way we think about crime and punishment.

For all of the controversy about Oregon's mandatory-minimum sentences, the fact remains that most first-time property-crime offenders—even in serious cases like home break-ins—receive only probation under state law. Until Bloch's START court began in March, offenders like Santana would have been set loose and largely left to their own devices. Almost all return to their old ways, winding up back in court on new charges.

START takes drug-addicted burglars and thieves and puts them on what Bloch calls "the toughest probation they can be on."

They're ordered to attend daily drug treatment. They're drug-tested frequently and appear as often as twice a week in Bloch's court, where he checks their progress. Those who have stayed clean get praise from Bloch, sometimes even a gift card from Fred Meyer or Subway, and a round of applause. Bloch is part therapist, part cheerleader and part parent—and his courtroom sometimes resembles a revival meeting more than a court of law.

But for those who have lapsed, the punishment is instant. If people show up late or demonstrate disrespect in court, Bloch makes them listen to the others and wait up to six hours for their turn. Missing court dates or treatment sessions, or testing positive for drugs, can earn instant jail time.

"If you do right, we're going to notice you're doing right and reward you," Bloch says. "If you do wrong, we're going to know that and respond with a sanction."

It's too soon yet to measure the program's success in deterring recidivism, but Portland has a history of pioneering successful alternatives for dealing with criminals.

First came Multnomah County's drug court, the second of its kind in the nation when it opened in 1991. It took addicts busted for possession or forging a prescription, and put them on close supervision and into treatment during their probation. Later, Bloch headed a similar court for repeat DUII offenders.

And those programs work. Court statistics show that people in the DUII program have half the recidivism rate of other DUII offenders. Numerous studies have shown that the drug court cuts the re-arrest rate for addicts from 90 percent to as low as 10 percent.

Bloch has high hopes for the START court as well. He quips that "102 percent" of property crime is based on chemical addiction.

"Until you deal with that, these people are just going to be re-offenders; frequent fliers in our system," he says. "The heart of their criminality is a very treatable disease."

Bloch is a Long Island native and Cornell grad who studied law at the University of Oregon. He started his law career in medical malpractice defense, then took a job with a special litigation unit at the state Department of Justice. In 1997, he was picked to work on salmon and energy issues for then-Gov. John Kitzhaber's office.

Bloch's wonkish career path makes him an unlikely candidate to head a drug court. But since Kitzhaber appointed him to the Multnomah County bench in 2003, Bloch and his fellow judges have seen resources for the drug addicted and mentally ill—who make up the vast majority of criminal defendants—steadily stripped away.

Sitting in her office on the fifth floor of the courthouse, Julie Frantz, Multnomah County's chief criminal judge, ticks off the lost programs with her fingers one by one. Talk to other judges, and they add more programs to the list. The ones most often mentioned:

A work-release center where convicts could do time at night while holding jobs and staying engaged in the community during the day. Opened in 1987 in the historic Martha Washington Hotel on Southwest 11th Avenue, it closed in 2003, a victim of budget cuts.

Camp Wyeth, a work camp in the Columbia Gorge where inmates could serve part of their sentence building trails and getting exposed to nature, often for the first time. Opened in 1988, it was closed in 2005—again, a victim of budget cuts.

Lock-down residential drug treatment. Multnomah County has twice closed centers that provided an option for judges to place criminals with chemical dependency. Now they take up limited jail beds instead.

Direct probation supervision for many people convicted of misdemeanors. The county's Department of Community Justice stopped providing those services in 2007, leaving even defendants with severe mental illness or addiction with little supervision.

And starting this year, the Legislature whittled to 60 the number of days that judges can send people to jail for technical probation violations such as failing to report. That severely limits judges' ability to take people who are in obvious danger off the street, because the limit includes time served.

All were tools judges relied on to get criminals help in overcoming the troubles that landed them in jail in the first place.

"Definitely the diminished resources contribute to a feeling that our hands are tied in ways that they weren't before," says Jean Maurer, Multnomah County's presiding judge.

Such is the tattered system Ryan Santana found himself in need of this year.

DOWN AND OUT: Santana stands amid used needles and other debris he and other heroin users have left in a subterranean stairwell beside Mazatlan restuarant on West Burnside Street. IMAGE: Rachelle Hacmac

As Santana describes it, the life of a hardcore street junkie is hard work. And most of that work is illegal.

He honed a range of techniques to fuel his $100-a-day habit. Saturday Market, Last Thursday and the coffee shops around Pioneer Courthouse Square were his hunting grounds for snatching purses and iPhones. He'd also hunt for receipts in the trash, then steal the items listed and return them for money. Fencers also would tell him what items they wanted to sell—designer purses were a favorite—and he'd steal them to be resold on eBay.

Santana had no criminal record before this year and says he never did drugs beyond pot in high school. He'd been smoking heroin for four months in March but had never before put a needle in his arm. He was afraid, but that fear vanished when the needle slipped in.

"It was clean, it was fast, it got me really, really high," he says.

The high lasts about six hours, as opposed to one hour from smoking. It's a 30-second rush of intense pleasure, followed by a feeling of numbed bliss. But the withdrawal is catastrophic—stomach cramps, diarrhea and intense pain Santana says is 10 times worse than any sickness before.

Scoring was easy. Santana kept multiple dealers' numbers on his cell phone. They would meet him any time on a downtown street corner—the most popular was Southwest 4th Avenue and Morrison Street. It's easy to tell if the dope is real—Santana can smell it and know.

In the space of five months, Santana went from a promising college student to a street junkie—sleeping outside or in shelters, shooting up in any public restroom.

"Every bathroom you go in downtown, somebody's probably shot up in there. I probably have too," he says. "People wouldn't even realize. If you don't do it, you're pretty oblivious."

His favorite spot was a subterranean stairwell beside Mazatlan Restaurant on West Burnside Street, near PGE Park. It was there he overdosed one afternoon in June, slamming a full half gram into his arm—a massive hit even for lifelong addicts—because at first he couldn't feel the effect.

His breathing stopped for a time, and his legs barely worked. He stumbled to the out-of-session Lincoln High School, where he passed out on the lawn. It was terrifying, he says, but also intensely satisfying.

"It was probably the best high of my whole life," he says.

Police and court records show Santana's habit led to a string of arrests for drug possession, criminal trespassing and theft. The most serious charge came when he and a friend were caught stealing whiskey, scotch, cigars and binoculars from a boat docked at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Santana says they just wanted to get drunk. But the case landed him in Judge McShane's courtroom, charged with felony burglary.

JUDGE McSHANE: "Your only option is to be a disinterested observer and watch a train wreck, or step in." IMAGE: Rachelle Hacmac

McShane, who regularly sports a day-old growth of stubble, spent his early lawyer days as a public defender. Now he regularly works extra hours helping defendants find help, and Santana quickly gained his sympathy and support.

"He's somebody in front of you who's in crisis now. Your only option is to be a disinterested observer and watch a train wreck, or step in," McShane says. "Once you step in, you're committed emotionally, whether you want to be or not."

McShane pulled all Santana's cases into his court and negotiated a plea deal, giving Santana 36 months of probation—the standard sentence for first-degree burglary.

But there McShane ran into the limits of a broken system. Santana was considered a low-risk offender, and McShane feared he wouldn't qualify for supervised probation.

So McShane arranged to have Santana check in at his office once a week. Others on his list for bench probation have been ordered to do the same, sometimes as often as once a day. Often it's up to McShane and his overtaxed judicial assistant to find them housing and make sure they're on medication or getting treatment.

"There are a lot of Ryans out there," McShane says. "You have literally tens of thousands of people in the system who have no supervision."

On the street, the risk that Santana would relapse was real, McShane knew. But getting him into drug treatment was no easier. For the uninsured, after years of budget cuts, the waiting time for residential treatment beds in Multnomah County is currently up to three months.

McShane drove Santana to Hooper Detox in Southeast Portland, which has a program to help people through medical detox. Patients sometimes have to show up every morning for several days waiting for a vacancy. Many simply give up. McShane waited for hours at Hooper to make sure Santana was admitted.

Patients at Hooper get clean and attend a few group classes, but Hooper doesn't provide the intensive drug treatment addicts need. Plus, there's a glaring paradox—clients need to test positive for drugs to enter the program. McShane had to warn Santana not to show up clean.

"That's the conversation that's odd for a judge," McShane says. "I wasn't telling him to go get high, but it is an odd conversation to have."

Santana spent nine days in detox. When he got out, McShane helped enroll him in Bloch's court. But without transitional housing available, Santana was again living on the street and in shelters. Each time he relapsed, Bloch would send him to jail for one or two days.

Santana spent those weeks waiting for a residential treatment bed to open. In the meantime, he was sleeping in shelters at night and shuffling aimlessly around downtown during the day. He says half the kids in the Janus Youth Program shelter were heroin users, and everyone he knew on the streets was a junkie too. The temptation was extreme.

The last time Santana shot up was Sept. 2, when he cashed an inheritance check from his grandfather and scored $150 worth of heroin. He returned to Bloch's court Sept. 7, and the judge ordered him into jail until he finally qualified for a residential treatment bed Sept. 13. After spending up to six months in treatment, he says he hopes to re-enroll at PSU.

If Santana is successful, one of the inescapable ironies will be the fact that his recovery was due in part to the breakdown of the social safety net designed to save him. Because it won't have been counselors or therapists who took the first steps to rescue him—it was the judges who stepped into their place.

Whether Santana and others like him become positive or negative examples for the START Court will be closely watched as a matter of policy. But whether one former long-distance runner can come back as a business major is more than just a statistic to Bloch.

"I think he's got a good shot at it, I really do," Bloch says. "He's in this program, and we're going to stick with him. We're going to see him through."


IMAGE: Rachelle Hacmac

Ryan Santana is far from the only Portlander to fall into the heroin trap.

According to stats kept by the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, Portland is the No. 1 American city per capita for so-called "opioid" overdose deaths, which include not just heroin but also prescription narcotics like OxyContin.

In 2007, the DA's most recent data, there were 130 deaths—one for every 5,399 Portland residents. That's more per capita than in San Francisco or Seattle, which held second and third place.

Law-enforcement officials and dope users say the reasons have to do with Oregon's geography, lax drug laws and growing reputation as a haven for junkies.

First, Portland sits on the I-5 corridor—the main line for shipping heroin into the United States from factories in Mexico where it's produced. Because Oregon is a state with high demand, the potent tar heroin from the drug cartels comes here undiluted.

Next are Oregon's drug laws—"probably the most lax in the country," says Mark McDonnell, a Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney. He notes that under Oregon law, street-level dealers don't get prison time until their fifth bust. As a result, only 4 percent of people convicted of felony drug offenses are sentenced to prison, McDonnell says.

Finally, users say the high quality of Portland heroin has made the city a draw for junkies nationwide—creating a market where dealers compete to provide the strongest product. "Portland is like the heroin capital of the world," Santana says. "People come here just to do it, because apparently we have the best stuff."

An Afternoon With Ryan