Daily Hampshire Gazette – For criminals in Hampshire and Franklin Counties, this is where their illegal drug use and recovery begins
6 mins read

Daily Hampshire Gazette – For criminals in Hampshire and Franklin Counties, this is where their illegal drug use and recovery begins

NORTHAMPTON — Maria Pantoja credits her late aunt and dearest friend Doris Colon with teaching her a valuable lesson about helping people facing drug addiction.

“She showed me how to treat the person first and then the problem,” Pantoja said.

Colon herself struggled with drugs and died in 1998 at the age of 43. Pantoja began working in the Hampden and Northwestern district attorney’s offices, and since 2018 has directed the drug enforcement and treatment program in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Last month, the Hampshire County Bar Association presented her with the “Contribution to Justice” award “in recognition of her commitment, knowledge, patience and integrity in advancing the interests of justice in Hampshire County.”

“I was shocked when they called me about it,” Pantoja said. She is especially proud to know that she is the first Latina to win this award.

He knows how to fight for acceptance. Her dad was the first Spanish teacher in Holyoke schools in 1970, she added, and had to fight for a classroom larger than a closet. Similarly, when she started working there in 1997, she was the only Spanish-speaking person on the Holyoke District Court and faced prejudice and disregard on a daily basis.

But she continued her education, returned to college in 2011 and graduated with honors from Bay Path University in 2015.

Pantoja accepts criminals into the illegal drug distribution program based on its own consumption assessment. It begins with a drug charge being filed and a court appearance, where a prosecutor may find the person a suitable candidate and commit him or her to a diversion program.

Becky Michaels, assistant district attorney and director of community prosecutors’ projects, said Pantoja’s qualities go beyond being organized and trusting court staff.

“She brings a tremendous sense of hope to every person she works with,” Michaels said. “It helps them believe they can get out of the situation they are in.”

She added that Pantoja has great empathy for people struggling with addictions and the ability to see the good in them even in the darkest moments.

It may take an hour or two to consume, Pantoja said. They need to know that the person is serious about treatment and participating in a program that takes at least six months to complete.

The court case continues until the perpetrator’s treatment is completed, after which the charges are dismissed.

Pantoja works closely with Clinical & Support Options and the Center for Human Development to develop individual treatment plans. Another important source of information is John Sullivan of the Northampton Recovery Center, she added.

“I expect people to be honest,” she said. “The main goal is recovery and healing.”

If a client is late for an appointment, Pantoja will find out and call her about it. He sees himself as the human face of the court system, but if people want to stay out of court, they have to make it happen.

People who complete the program often stay in touch with Pantoja afterward. The 30-year-old single mother, who had lost custody of her children and was at rock bottom when she was arrested in February 2023, sent Pantoja a video claiming she saved her life.

“I participated in the program, completed it and my life has been better since then,” the woman said, describing Pantoja as a “tough ass.”

“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be kicked out of the program. You have to do the work. I have a huge place in my heart for Maria.”

People accepted for diversion are mostly non-violent criminals. If a victim is involved in the case, Pantoja will consult with the victim’s attorneys/witnesses to ensure they have reached an agreement.

She added that the first person she worked with was a former police officer who became addicted to opiates after breaking his spine while calling the police.

“I learned a lot,” she said.

District Attorney David Sullivan said his office has received dozens of letters of thanks from people who have completed the program.

“We are very proud of Maria,” he said. “This is an award he fully deserves.”

He goes the extra mile to help clients, he said, putting a human face on the criminal justice system.

“They realize that we are a human system and people will respect them if they respect themselves,” he said.

She said more than 630 people have used the diversion program during her time there. Numbers are fluid at any given time: As of Friday, 50 people were in various stages of recovery. Pantoja runs the program with the help of a diversion specialist who works in Franklin County.

“I love seeing the transformation” some of the program participants go through, she said. “We had some great successes. But some people can’t do it.”

Overall, she stated that there are more endings than endings. The vast majority of people who complete the program then abstain from drugs, although some may continue to take maintenance medications such as methadone for many years.

The drugs themselves present an evolving challenge. Cheap, deadly fentanyl has long been mixed with heroin and is increasingly used in many other drugs. The animal tranquilizer xylazine, known for its flesh-eating properties, has gained popularity in the region, and naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose, is ineffective against it.

Pantoja said she recently spoke to a young woman who had just turned 21 and told her she had overdosed 10 times.

Pantoja said she told her she must be blessed.

“I want them to understand that they are valuable,” she said of the program’s participants. “I want them to succeed.”

James Pentland can be reached at [email protected].