Attorney’s redemption story coming full circle
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — More than 12 years since Jessica Miraglia completed the drug-treatment program of Luzerne County Treatment Court, the young lawyer has finally gathered the courage to publicly talk about her journey from being an addict to becoming an attorney.
Miraglia, 32, of Fairview Twp., now serves as one of Luzerne County’s conflict counsel attorneys who represent indigent clients.
“Treatment court is the only reason I’m here, so I adore the program. We need to focus on rehabilitation instead of just punishment,” Miraglia said. “I would love for society to care more about giving people a second chance.”
Treatment court gave Miraglia a second chance. And she is making the most of it, hoping to inspire others to follow her lead.
Twelve people were to graduate last week from the Luzerne County Treatment Court program, which serves as an intensive probation sentence for first-time, non-violent offenders who want their records expunged.
Miraglia, who used cocaine, ecstasy and abused prescription pills like xanax, said she’s been sober since entering treatment court in June 2006.
After completing the program in 12 months, Miraglia went on to get degrees in criminal justice from Luzerne County Community College and King’s College and graduated at the top of her law school class at Widener University — all as a single mother.
“It’s a great story,” said attorney Vito DeLuca, who has been an advocate for and mentor to Miraglia ever since she walked into his office at age 18 after being hit with felony drug-dealing charges by state prosecutors.
DeLuca said Miraglia was arrested as part of a bust named “Operation Family Ties” for frequenting a childhood friend’s house in Kingston who was a drug-dealer being watched by investigators.
“She was basically hanging out smoking for free,” DeLuca said.
Miraglia adds, “I was an addict, not a drug dealer.”
Fight for law degree
Miraglia’s past almost came back to haunt her and crush her dreams of being a lawyer.
Toward the end of her final year of law school, she learned the university wouldn’t certify her as a person fit to practice law because of her criminal history — a requirement of the American Bar Association.
“After she spent $300,000 that she didn’t have,” DeLuca pointed out.
Prior to treatment court, Miraglia also faced a cocaine charge, but it was expunged as a result of her completion of the program.
Following treatment court, Miraglia was charged with burglary, but she considered it more of a rescue when she entered a house to retrieve her 2-year-old daughter. She said she learned her daughter wasn’t being properly supervised at the child’s father’s house — in violation of a custody order that required another adult being present.
The arresting officer later reduced the charge and she got the case expunged, too, Deluca said.
But school officials already knew this because it was contained in her application for admission, Miraglia said.
Miraglia said the reason the school claimed she was unfit was that she didn’t previously disclose underage drinking and harassment charges she got as a minor. The Kingston native, who attended Wyoming Valley West schools, said she was in trouble with the police often as a juvenile — and didn’t initially remember some things on her juvenile record.
“I apologize to my father all the time to this day because I drove him nuts,” Miraglia said.
DeLuca lobbied school officials to change their mind.
Eventually they did.
“It was one person who filed an honor code complaint,” Miraglia said.
Reaching the bar
The school finally cleared Miraglia just three weeks before the February 2017 bar exam. She wasn’t ready, but the next bar exam wasn’t until July 2017, her loan payments started to kick in and she needed a job.
At the time, she was serving as a non-paid intern for the defense team of notorious cop killer Eric Frein. She was the third-chair counsel for Frein’s death penalty trial in Pike County, having been selected by longtime veteran defense attorney Bill Ruzzo, who admired her work.
During the trial, Miraglia discovered she failed the exam.
“The first person who knew I failed the bar exam was Eric Frein. I was crying,” Miraglia recalled.
Miraglia took the exam again in July 2017. The good news? She passed. The bad news? The Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners still refused to issue her a law license because of her past.
Ruzzo, who died last year, also had a criminal record before becoming a lawyer and vowed to lead the fight to appeal the decision. A hearing was set for The Justice Center in Harrisburg and Ruzzo lined up a cast of legal minds from Luzerne County to attend to vouch for Miraglia’s good character and work ethic, including County Manager David Pedri.
Miraglia had interned with Pedri in the solicitor’s office previously. Ironically, he also was the one who signed the document accepting her into the drug treatment court program in 2006 when he worked in the district attorney’s office.
Weeks after the hearing, the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners reversed its decision and agreed to grant Miraglia a law license.
On Jan. 22, 2018, she was sworn in by Luzerne County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr., who now is in charge of treatment court. Following a short stint in the private sector, the county hired Miraglia in October as part of its pool of conflict counsel attorneys.
“Doing what I do, I see people looking for a second chance,” Miraglia said.
Pedri saluted Miraglia’s life turnaround.
“Attorney Miraglia is a true example of what could be,” Pedri said. “What could be if you acknowledge your mistakes, learn and grow. What could be if you work hard and with determination. What could be if you care about the community. Luzerne County is proud to employ her and I hope her story inspires others having a difficult time of what could be for them.”
At the time Miraglia was arrested in 2005 by the state Attorney General’s office, she had not thought of changing her lifestyle.
She has been doing drugs since 8th grade, but hadn’t been in any serious trouble before besides citations for minor things like fighting.
But this time, she knew she needed an attorney and went to visit DeLuca.
“I needed an attorney — and more drugs — is probably what I was thinking at the time,” Miraglia said.
After talking to Miraglia, DeLuca had a question for her.
“I said ‘Jessica, what the hell are you doing here? You’re brilliant,’” DeLuca said.
The moment has led to father-daughter-like relationship between the two the past 14 years.
At the time, Luzerne County didn’t allow those with felony changes into treatment court, but DeLuca was able to convince prosecutors to lessen the charges to allow her entry. Aside from helping Miraglia fight to get her law license, DeLuca gave her internships and a full-time job, allowing her to bring her daughter to work at his office. He served as Miraglia’s sponsor into the Wilkes-Barre Law and Library Association.
Now, he plans to launch a fundraiser to help pay off her $300,000 in law school loans. He’s hoping the national media picks up her story.
During a meeting in front of a reporter, he told her how proud he was.
“I’ve witnessed obstacle after obstacle put in front of you and you persevered,” DeLuca said.
WHAT IS TREATMENT COURT?
The Luzerne County Treatment Court program serves as an intensive probation sentence for first-time, non-violent drug offenders who want their records expunged. Those in the program regularly appear in court, meeting probation officers, attend counseling, and are drug tested.
The minimum length of time in the program is one year.
Started: Jan. 4, 2006
Current participants: 63
Number of graduates: 214
13% during first year
6% during the second year
4% during third years
Cost per day: (per offender)
Treatment court: $12
Luzerne County Correctional Facility: $94
On the web: www.luzernecounty.org/268/Treatment-Court
Treatment court application:
SOURCE: LUZERNE COUNTY
Information from: The Citizens’ Voice, http://www.citizensvoice.com