[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of April is the Coordinator of Specialty Courts for Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. As Coordinator, Mr. Polensky oversees TOM’S Court, which specializes in mental health, Drug Treatment Court, as well as the revolutionary Opioid Intervention Court. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog.]
By: Evan Marmie
The day was warm and the setting familiar. Slowly, I drove through the sleepy town of Carlisle. The early afternoon saw the sun looming over head and a few people bustling between different lunch spots. Luckily, I found a place to park on the town’s main stretch and stepped out in front of a former bakery before I walked up the street. There was a faint breeze as cars whizzed by and I could hear birds chirping as I looked for the building where I would meet with Paul.
Sandwiched between two buildings and rising above them stood the Marion building. Roman pillars stood as tall as the roofs of the buildings beside it and inside stood two guards with a metal detector. I sighed and resigned to take off my belt and jacket as I stepped inside. I walked into the elevator to the left of the detector as I reaffixed my belt and jacket. The elevator itself was like a step into the past: wood paneling and a faint quiver as it slowly trudged up to the third floor. I stepped out facing a window looking into a more modern office space and wound my way down the hallway to a reception desk where I spoke to a receptionist who directed me to Paul’s office.
He was warm in his greeting and shook my hand as I stepped in. The room was sparse but welcoming enough. There was a small table and chairs where I set up my computer next to a jar of candy and lowered myself into the plush seat before I turned to Paul. His desk was neat and orderly. On the back wall hanging over Pauk’s seat was a large drawing of different airships with an Air Force slogan and atop his desk’s upper shelving were a number of knickknacks clearly from times past. It was a place tucked away from the public eye, much like the important work Paul himself does on a daily basis.
“The whole idea of the problem-solving courts is to marry the treatment piece with the judicial piece,” he remarked. He made hand gestures as he continued and was emphatic in conversation, “We deal with people in the criminal justice system. People who usually have substance use disorder or mental health disorders. There’s a lot of different kind of problem-solving courts,” he continued on, “we deal with people who do low level crimes like DUI’s where they have resources and usually do not reoffend,” he explained, “we also deal with more high risk people who usually are addicted to heroin or fentanyl or something. They usually commit crimes like theft or something else adjacent to their addiction. In both cases, we try to get them into treatment. We do our best to get them into long term treatment.”
Speaking more directly on his role, Paul started with a pause, “I’m trying to put it in a nutshell,” he said with a chuckle before another brief pause. He looked up and to the right for a moment as he thought on his answer, “I make sure that the program, the treatment court or whatever else it is, is running the way we want it to operate and is achieving the outcomes we desire,” he continues, “I am the front end of the program and the back end of the program…I collect the data and analyze the data…I am the budget guy who makes sure our money is spent where it needs to be spent,” he explained.
When we moved into what got him into the position, it was clear that a bit of serendipity and a lot of hard work played a role in where he is today. An Air Force veteran, Paul moved often as part of his service. After retirement, he found himself looking for opportunity anywhere. Pennsylvania ended up being where he chose to come in part for the opportunities but also because they “didn’t tax his Air Force retirement,” he joked. It was at this point he began his work in Central Pennsylvania working for the District Attorney’s Association as a training coordinator. Eventually his experience with the association helped lead him to move into working at the Cumberland County Courthouse where he began as a drug tester for the treatment courts. Through diligent effort and time, he saw promotion after promotion until he eventually became the coordinator.
“I wanted to do something that directly affects the community,” he said with a smile, “And everything we do here kind of…scratches that itch,” he chuckled. I asked him if his path was intentional and he made it clear that it was not, “It’s all accidental. My life has always been…I never really had a lot of aspirations with that kind of thing. I’ve just always been kind of fortunate that what I’ve done has always lead to something else…the skills I’ve learned and everything I’ve developed has always related to something I’ve done,” he shrugged, “When I first got out of the Air Force, I was just burnt out. I didn’t want anything with a lot of responsibility, so I’ve, in a way, become everything I didn’t want to be,” he joked with a laugh, “I am just, y’know, very grateful with how everything has worked out. This is just such a great thing to be a part of.”
There was a brief pause before we spoke about Treatment Courts, “When I heard about the program…I just thought wow, this really makes sense. I didn’t know that wasn’t always the consensus,” he shrugged, “Problem solving courts are not always popular…there is a punishment model out there and there’s a lot of people who feel that way and that the participants are getting out of something. They lose sight of…if the punishment model worked, we wouldn’t keep sending people to jail over and over and over,” he explained further, “There is enough data and evidence to show this model works and fantastically to get the outcomes that we want. It makes people productive and reduces crimes. So, my mindset is…it’s a process improvement.”
I then asked him about the hard parts of his job. A long pause came after my question and his brow furrowed in effort as he tried to think, “Wow…hmmm, I think…I guess “herding the cats.” When we decide certain things are going to happen or when we think certain people are going to do things. Just getting the whole team to see what’s going to happen,” he shrugs, “The most enjoyable is court. My end of things is very much numbers and it becomes easy to look at someone as a statistic…court lets you see what good you get and what you’re doing really has an impact.”
Discussing the courts lead to how society sees the program at large. Treatment courts are a new advent, having been developed in the past 20 years mostly in response to high amounts of recidivism particularly for crimes involving drugs, poverty, and mental health. However, the program does not necessarily provide understanding for the community. Paul spoke on community perceptions, “We deal with people who mostly are suffering from mental disorders like substance use disorder…we ran the numbers and most of the people in our programs have suffered from abuse in the past,” He paused, “You can’t change what people think all the time…they’re looking from the outside in. They don’t understand…it’s something that the court could do more of.”
We moved onto the essential components of what makes a coordinator successful. For people who want to do what Paul does, his biggest advice is hard work, “Most of these hire up, so just getting started at the bottom is a good way to get to the top,” he recommended. As for skills, organization and patience are most important, “It helps to be a numbers person. It helps to understand program improvements. It helps to understand team dynamics,” he continued, “We’re lucky at treatment court to have worked together for a long time. We’re a mature team that gets each other. That helps.”
As the interview ended, I packed up my computer and gave Paul a firm handshake. Riding down in the elevator, I thought of how many people there were in his relatively unknown office. As I stepped out onto the street, I similarly began to wonder how many people walked past the massive building in which he was housed without ever realizing how important the workers inside were to the every day lives of vulnerable people. I looked up at the pillars lining the façade and then to my car down the street. When I got in my car and drove past the building again, I looked at it briefly before turning my eyes forward at the signal. It turned out, even the biggest and most impressive things can seem invisible when not paying attention.