“Therapeutic” courts could see an influx under Washington’s next drug law

Olympia lawmakers are drafting amendments to Washington state’s drug possession law. Your current proposal includes criminal sanctions. It also places great emphasis on “distraction programs” designed to help people avoid jail time and criminal records. Drug courts or “therapeutic” courts could be a route for these cases.

Advocates say drug courts have a strong record of helping people succeed. Critics say their strict abstinence requirements can cause participants to fail.

Earlier this month was “graduation day” for drug court participants at King County Superior Court in downtown Seattle. One graduate, Roxanne Kostelac, carried a red plastic toolbox, symbolizing the tools she acquired to help her chart a new path. But she said she felt more concerned than celebratory.

“It’s not like I’m going to win a Grammy!” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, thank you all. But that’s the first day I go to work. I have my tool box. That’s scary.”

When Kostelac and her graduates chose drug court, they faced property crime charges based on addiction. But they successfully adhered to a rigorous program of treatment and counseling, finding housing, jobs, pets, and more stability along the way.

On that day, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts signed orders dismissing her felony charges. She said the research bodes well for most drug court participants, even if they don’t have a degree.

“81 percent of our participants have no new offenses after 36 months. That’s a great statistic for relapses,” she said, adding that more than 80 percent of participants complete the program, taking an average of 16 months to complete.

The role of drug courts is unclear under the proposed legislation

State lawmakers are debating a new bill (SB 5536) that would require anyone arrested for drug possession to have a choice to engage in a “diversion” — treatment and services — rather than go to jail. But these resources vary widely across the state, and the role of drug courts in this new system is not yet clear.

Drug courts started at the crime level decades ago, but lawmakers are attempting to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor. These cases are tried in city and county courts — and only about half of them offer drug court programs, which they often refer to as “therapeutic” or “community courts.”

Christina Mason, King County Drug Court Program Manager, was present at the graduation ceremony to assist with the awarding of certificates. Mason is also the President of the Washington Association of Drug Courts.

She said that as state legislators debate Washington’s next approach to drug possession, she hopes they will allow numerous prison escapes. She said the drug court could be a second resort for people who are unsuccessful with less structured programs.

“Most of our participants had prior substance use disorder treatment, and they were unable to thrive in traditional community substance use disorder treatment without the additional support and accountability that comes from a drug court model,” Mason said .

Drug courts are being expanded at district and community levels

The state administration office of the courts has spent about $9 million over the past two years to expand local drug courts and is seeking another $20 million to continue the process.

Jenifer Howson is a presiding judge in county and city courts in Skagit County, where she created a drug court-style program in 2020. These sessions take place outside of traditional courtrooms.

“So the judge sits on the same level and doesn’t often wear a robe and talk to people face-to-face,” she said, with service providers also in attendance. “And the whole goal of the whole room is to get the person safely into treatment so they don’t reoffend and to support them along the way.”

Participants agree not to possess or use illegal drugs during the course of the program.

“The issue of relapse is treated on a case-by-case basis depending on the timing of a relapse,” Howson said.

If the person completes the program, the charges against them are dismissed, and if not, they face a conviction.

The Washington Supreme Court overturned the state’s drug possession law in the 2021 “Blake” decision. A stopgap measure currently makes drug possession a misdemeanor, but that law expires at the end of June.

Howson said her community courts are currently hearing cases of misdemeanors such as shoplifting and trespassing related to drug use. Legislative analysts estimate that county and city courts will receive 12,000 additional drug possession cases per year if the current law is passed.

Howson said the past few years have been an important learning curve and her alternative courts are ready to take on these new drug cases.

“I actually changed the name of my community court to community detour dish, just so everyone understands it’s there,” she said.

Bridget Lopez is the leader of LEAD Legal Systems Advocates in King County. Her team helps clients, many of whom suffer from drug use or mental health issues, navigate the court system. She said drug court programs — as opposed to a less stringent type of diversion — have some major pros and cons. They are effective in helping people find housing, she said, but their success rate is not pronounced in the populations they serve.

“I would say that most people I work with that get filed in a drug court don’t complete it,” Lopez said.

She said drug courts are often described as “high risk, high reward,” and participants who fail could pay a heavy price.

“If you don’t complete the program, you return to the conviction of your original charge,” she said.

She said sending these people to jail makes them worse.

The drug court was grueling, but “I don’t want to go back.”

Pierce County’s Matthew Seed attended a drug court in 2017. He describes it as a grueling and stressful time.

Just released from prison, he had no money and no car. He had a job at UPS that started every night at 3am, which he commuted to on his bike, then got back on his bike when he got home from work at 8am for his next stop — getting on Drug court, followed by a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and then drive home.

“I didn’t even have money for food,” Seed said. “When I got home I was starving.”

Seed said he had vivid nightmares during those years about failing a drug test, which could have meant years in prison. But he said the drug court ultimately worked for him — the rigid structure put him on the road to recovery.

“I had never known life without drugs as a coping mechanism,” he said. “My parents were addicts. I honestly didn’t really know how to live.”

Now, Seed said, his life is better.

“I don’t want to go back,” he said. “Well, I think the drug court helped in that way.”

Still, he said it would have been so much better if someone had offered him treatment years earlier.

“Nobody’s ever said, ‘Hey, have you considered treatment? Maybe that’s an option for you.” Nobody! Until I said so,” he said.

Next big question: Government funding for addiction treatment

The hope is that Washington’s next drug law will allow for addiction treatment at every stage of the process. Everyone involved agrees on this, whether they prefer drug courts or less strict approaches. And they say government funding will be critical to making that happen.

Thurston County Attorney Jon Tunheim said he was pleased with the current bill’s emphasis on creating a “portfolio of options” to guide people to treatments and services.

“Washington State is really trying to be at the forefront of innovative approaches to this issue,” he said, but it all leads to the next big question: “Where’s the money?”

Tunheim said crime-level drug courts will continue to look at the types of cases they already focus on when crimes are related to a person’s substance use disorder.


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