I had the pleasure of meeting Alex in August 2020, shortly after Montgomery County appointed me to be his attorney for a felony drug case. I met him while he was incarcerated at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF). He was only 21 years old at the time and his immediate family, consisting of his older brother and younger sister, lived in California. He has endured a rough life, as he recently lost his mother and best friend, his father was deceased, and he struggled with addiction. When he came to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania in August 2019 to live with his grandmother, he got caught up with the wrong crowd and ultimately became addicted to heroin.
In the latter part of 2019, Alex was arrested for being part of a drug operation and for retail theft on a separate occasion. As a result of both the arrests and not being able to post bail, he was detained in MCCF starting in December 2019. In reality, Alex was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was using heroin in a house where drug sales occurred and was consequently charged for being a conspirator with others, selling heroin and fentanyl out of that house. This raised his offenses to felonies.
When I met Alex at the prison in August 2020, he had been incarcerated for almost nine months and was desperate to be released. Despite being in prison, he was motivated to get help for his drug addiction and change the trajectory of his life towards a positive direction. In October 2020, Alex took a guilty plea deal to two felonies so that he could be released. He agreed to plead guilty to Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver and Conspiracy as well as the misdemeanor Retail Theft, which allowed him to be released from prison to a period of parole and probation.
When I didn’t hear from Alex after his plea and sentencing, his family in California contacted me to express their concern about his return to addiction. I finally heard from Alex this past summer, when he called me from California to let me know that he had relapsed and became homeless while he was still in Pennsylvania in the spring. He also told me that he had tried numerous times to contact his probation officer by leaving phone messages, that he never received a return call, and that he was told that he had a new probation officer. He informed me that no one had reached out to him or returned any of his calls.
Feeling frustrated, depressed, and facing his reality of homelessness and addiction to opiates, Alex feared that he would die if he stayed in Montgomery County. Because he never heard back from anyone in Adult Probation, he felt that he had to return to California if he wanted ot survive. He boarded a Greyhound Bus to California and to love the support of his family. While there in the late spring and summer of 2021, he took major strides towards a healthier life. He began to work, stopped using drugs, and planned to begin drug treatment after he finished the required 30 days of residency in California.
When Alex called me from California in July 2021, he was concerned about an arrest warrant from Montgomery County Adult Probation because he left the area. He asked me whether his probation could be transferred to his home in California. While his current probation officer was willing to work with me, her supervisor denied this request because of the Interstate Compact, a federal law that required California to approve the transfer of probation after Pennsylvania reviews, accepts, and submits the request.
While Alex was turning his life around in California, the supervisor in the Adult Probation Department in Montgomery County required that he return to Pennsylvania within a two-week period so that he could complete paperwork for his case to be transferred to California. Frightened to return to a place where he had faced homelessness and addiction, he once again departed on a Greyhound Bus and arrived at Montgomery County Adult Probation and Parole about three days later, in mid-July.
Prior to Alex’s arrival, I asked his probation officer to find a rehab center and/or a shelter where he could live while waiting for approval of the probation transfer. In response to my request, she made two inquiries: one to a 211 phone number meant to help people find a shelter and the second to a rehab center.
Despite this preventative effort, Alex arrived and completed the paperwork for the Interstate Compact, he received no direct assistance or support from Adult Probation. He, inevitably, relapsed his addiction to drugs and became homeless. I made numerous calls on his behalf to local rehabs and recovery houses. Because he had insurance from California and none of the local rehab facilities would accept it, he was not able to be admitted. The recovery house would not accept him because he was actively using opiates.
While he slept on the streets of Montgomery County in July and August, he was able to survive until the authorities kicked him and other homeless people out of the Norristown Transportation Center, which covered and protected him from the elements. Fast forward to the recent Tornado and flooding here in early September; Alex could not survive in his tent during the severe storm and ended up in the hospital for hypothermia. He lost his phone in the flood and he has been unreachable since then.
I hope and pray that Alex is okay, but I cannot help but fear the worst. I often wonder why we have a rigid criminal justice system that cared more about Alex getting back to our local Probation Department more than they cared about Alex’s welfare. The system failed him. Either he should have been permitted to stay in California while a decision was made to transfer his probation there, he should have been allowed to apply for the transfer electronically, avoiding a 3-day journey and the addiction and homelessness that resulted, or Adult Probation should have come up with another solution that prioritized his welfare and care.
Shame on the system and the Probation Department. May Alex’s story raise awareness and bring about change. Please pray for Alex’s safety, health, and welfare.