Whatcom County Drug Court changes lives, saves community resources

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 9, 2014 

I had the chance recently to reflect on the Whatcom County Drug Court in preparing for and participating in a forum on drugs in our community. I was paired with a police officer who gave a very complete and enlightening account of the impact drugs have on law enforcement in our county and cities. It is clear, whether working in law enforcement or the courts, that illegal drugs or involvement with them drives the vast majority of our criminal justice efforts. Anecdotally, I would say that between 80 percent and 90 percent of our work in the criminal arena involves cases in which illegal drugs are either the direct basis for the charge or the underlying cause of the behavior that brings the defendant to court.

As I reflected, I thought of some of the people who have graduated from Drug Court. There was a young man addicted to heroin, age 19, who is now a firefighter and has been clean for five years. There is a woman in her 40s who so wanted to succeed that she drove from Wenatchee weekly to appear in court for over six months just so that she could be admitted. She became a leader locally and in Washington State for clean and sober housing. Another young man in his 30s, whose adolescence and early adult years had been marked by repeated incarcerations, now is a full-time student with a new child. In the course of 15 years our Drug Court has graduated over 325 people, and we celebrated six more last month.

Merely incarcerating someone who is addicted to any substance only prolongs the problem. Without treatment and help, when that person rejoins the community they rejoin as an addict. Without a change in thinking, associates or lifestyle, the criminal behavior will only be repeated.

I am fortunate to be Whatcom County's Drug Court judge. I have seen hundreds of people come through the Drug Court, ranging in age from 19 to over 60. Most have a history of illicit drug use that harks back to teen years, if not earlier. All have developed a way of living that makes retreating into addiction the easier choice. To change that takes not only treatment, but a realigning of thinking patterns. Such changes cannot happen overnight, but require serious and continuing effort over time.

Drug Court provides that continuing effort. A program that takes a minimum of one year to complete, it addresses not only the physical addiction, but the beliefs and life history that prevent change. Evidence-based counseling programs, regular meetings and work with a case manager, a requirement to either have full-time employment or be in school full time and frequent, random, observed urinalysis tests all contribute to these successes. And although it may seem counterintuitive, the cost is proven to be significantly less than the alternative, which is repeated prosecution and incarceration.

But in the final analysis, what I think makes the most difference is the therapeutic court approach. Drug Court isn't an adversarial process, it is relationship building that encompasses case managers, treatment providers and participants and, most importantly, the entire "system" as we have come to think of it. When those whose job it is to keep the public safe and prosecute crimes join together with the court to rehabilitate lives, change happens. Graduates know that the court is there to provide them not only accountability for their actions, but also to give them the incentive to be productive and law-abiding citizens. That isn't the traditional model, but as the epidemic of illegal drug use continues, it becomes clear that the traditional model may not be the most effective.

I talk to Drug Court judges across the state and they unanimously agree that presiding over a Drug Court is the most rewarding thing they have done as judges. I am grateful to have the chance to apply this different model in Whatcom County because I see how it succeeds. Come to a graduation and you can see it first hand - just be sure to bring a handkerchief or tissue, because I guarantee it will move you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Judge Chuck Snyder has served in Whatcom County Superior Court since 1989 as both a court commissioner and as an elected judge.

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