Second of a series adapted from presentations given March 19 at the League of Women Voters of Bellingham & Whatcom County’s “Mental Health & the Whatcom County Jail: Where are We Going?” program.
There has been much debate of late about how best to accommodate mental health and substance abuse issues in our legal system. One of the best options has proven to be the use of therapeutic courts, such as specific mental health and drug courts. In Whatcom County we are fortunate to have both of these. I consider myself fortunate to be the judge who presides over the Whatcom County Drug Court.
What is a therapeutic court? It is a process where the traditional adversarial model is replaced by one in which the underlying problem, be it mental illness or drug addiction, is addressed in a holistic way, with the goal being to change behavior to successfully reintegrate people into the community. Treatment, therapy, accountability and change to thinking patterns is inherent in this approach. Each case is addressed by a team of professionals in the field along with legal counsel and the court. A course of action appropriate for each participant is created based on that person’s needs and abilities. Strict court monitoring, immediate sanctions for noncompliance and incentives for progress are built in to the model to maximize success.
The co-occurrence of mental health and substance abuse is common. There is still a significant need for mental health assessments and treatment services.
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Whatcom County has a fairly new mental health court that has been in operation for just over a year. It serves those charged with misdemeanor offenses in both the Bellingham Municipal Court and the Whatcom County District Court. It currently serves approximately 18 to 20 people and involves regular court appearances, strict conditions of compliance with treatment or therapy, and requires progress that can be measured. Because these courts have probation available to monitor compliance the team includes probation, attorneys, court staff, case managers and treatment providers. Sanctions include performing community service, more frequent court appearances and jail as a last resort. Incentives for success are widely used and there is good evidence that there is a reduction in recurring criminal behavior.
In the Superior Court there are two such programs. Family Treatment Court works with parents whose children have been removed from the home due to abuse or neglect. The felony Drug Court program focuses on those with felony charges who demonstrate a clear substance abuse problem. The details of each of these programs vary, but the philosophy is the same. Each program is proven to be successful in improving lives and behavior.
The most common drugs involved are heroin and methamphetamines, often in combination. There is no probation available in the Superior Court, so the team consists of prosecutor and defense counsel, the judge, case managers and, as available, treatment providers. The program includes four phases, each a minimum of 13 weeks in duration. Each phase requires random, observed urinalysis tests. At advancement to the next phase, each participant is given recognition and a small memento to commemorate their progress.
How it works
Phase one is for stabilization, and includes weekly court appearances, treatment as deemed necessary (often in-patient treatment at first), mandatory meetings with case managers and a group of alumni, verified attendance at sober support meetings and living in an approved clean-and-sober residence. Throughout the program each participant pays $15 per week to help support the program.
Phase two is life assessment. Court appearances are alternating weeks, ongoing treatment (now generally outpatient) and urinalysis tests are less frequent. It is expected in this phase that the participant will begin full-time work or schooling.
Phase three is for anchoring change, with court appearances every three weeks, completing Moral Reconation Therapy to address thinking patterns, continuing work or schooling, and continued sober support meetings and work with alumni to prepare for transition to life after drug court.
Phase four is the transition to living with more independence. Court appearances are once per month, stable housing must be obtained, verified work or school and a future goals/life plan are required. Once all restitution has been paid and all Drug Court requirements met, the participant graduates and their charges are permanently dismissed. Graduation is a celebration and a chance for the graduate to express the changes they have made. Each graduate is encouraged to continue working as alumni with those following them in the program to ease the transition to independence.
Sanctions for non-compliance are immediate and non-negotiable. Relapse generally results in a one day jail sanction plus increased urinalysis testing and monitoring. Other less serious violations result in community service work, more frequent court appearances or entering into a contract with specific goals and dates to achieve them. Those who do well are rewarded with lessened restrictions, small incentives such as recognition as a Person of the Week, receipt of gift cards or candy bars. Drug court participants also have regularly had Ski to Sea teams and play in a co-ed softball league as pro-social activities.
There are clear reductions in recidivism for participants in Drug Court as measured by monitoring criminal behavior after graduation. Some graduates do relapse, but a great many find that what they learned in Drug Court allows them to re-establish sobriety quickly and to maintain it going forward. State and national studies show that Drug Courts save between $3 and $27 for each dollar invested, depending on the scope of the program. There are other tangible impacts, such as reunited families, productive citizens working and paying taxes, and a safer community.
Despite these successes, there is a continuing need for resources for all of the therapeutic courts. The co-occurrence of mental health and substance abuse is common. There is still a significant need for mental health assessments and treatment services. Early identification of these needs is crucial. Continued support of these programs through the voter-approved sales tax is essential, as the professional case managers and treatment programs are the heart of the success of this model. Donations of money, in kind materials and services is one way the community can support these programs.
With continued support, these therapeutic courts can continue to improve life in Whatcom County. Our community is the better for them.
Charles Snyder is a Whatcom County Superior Court judge.