Judge Stephen Brown looked across the bench to one of the six participants in the new Grays Harbor County drug court.
“How’s your dog?”
“Doing great,” replied the young man.
“You keep sticking to the program and getting your living situation squared away and I’d like you to bring her in to the court,” said Brown.
Not your typical courtroom exchange, but this is not your typical courtroom.
The drug court, officially referred to as “therapeutic court,” gives substance-addicted individuals an option to jail time for the crimes they committed as a result of their addictions. After a thorough vetting process, those admitted into the program sign a contract agreeing they will follow the program’s long list of requirements, everything from staying clean and sober for the 12-18 months the contract typically runs to getting a job and a steady, safe and sober place to live.
According to court coordinator Jamie Wintrip, the first client, as they are called, signed on to the program April 26. Three current clients have now been in the program, and have remained sober, for more than a month.
Clients range in age from their early 20s to late 40s and include men and women. The court meets each Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. in the small courtroom in the Grays Harbor County juvenile detention center, where it will remain until the third courtroom at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse is ready to move into, which Brown said could be as early as the first part of July.
Court begins with a drawing among the clients who have complied with the program rules for the week. Three stood up Tuesday. The winner of the drawing got to pick what she wanted from a big bowl of candy on Brown’s bench and, more importantly, won the right to be first to be heard.
Brown asked each client as they appeared how their week had gone. Both he and Wintrip stress the importance of doling out a healthy dose of positive reinforcement. Each client’s total days sober was announced as they were called to the bench and was met with a round of applause from the gallery, consisting of guests, court administrators and the case workers that work diligently to keep clients on the right path.
There are consequences for breaking the rules. The three clients who did not qualify for the drawing Tuesday had all broken the rules during the week between sessions; one was 10 minutes late for a mandatory one-on-one meeting, one missed his meeting altogether, and a third, new to the program, had slipped out of sobriety, something she immediately confessed to court administrators. Punishment was two and four hours of community service and a two page essay on the steps that need to be taken to stay clean and sober, respectively.
If a client is unable to maintain compliance with the program, and that person is dropped from the program, whatever crimes they were charged with that got them in the position to enter drug court will be reinstated. Most are facing fairly significant jail time if that was to happen.
After court, five of the six clients took some time to share their stories.
The latest addition to the court, Walker grew up around heroin and by the time she was 13 she was an addict and living along the Chehalis River. Now 21, she was looking at up to two years in jail for crimes committed in the name of her addiction before finding her way into drug court.
“I now have more support than I have ever had in my life,” she said. “This is the longest I have ever been clean.”
Kenney, a 49-year-old father of a 6-year-old son, has “been in and out of prison for 25 years.” He said the support he gets from the other clients, counselors, Judge Brown and court administrators has opened him up to an entirely new way of viewing his self-worth.
“We call ourselves Team DC,” he said. After so many years behind bars and addicted, he calls the program “life-changing” and said he has learned to develop a personality that isn’t dependent on drugs and allows him to appreciate the love and support his parents have shown him regardless of his troubles. He has been able to reconnect with his son and has been clean and sober for more than 45 days after decades of addiction to heroin and methamphetamine, and credits the drug court for helping him to navigate through Child Protective Services to allow him time with his son.
Woods, 36, from Elma had a serious addiction to heroin. He came to drug court because of “drugs, and committing crimes to get drugs.” Just five months ago he welcomed a son and credits drug court not only for his nearly two months of sobriety but, like Kenney, for helping him work with the state to secure visitation with his other child, which can be difficult as the child lives outside the area and visitations are “tough to schedule” with all the requirements of the drug court. While he has not faced any sanctions so far in drug court, he said the sanctions that are handed out seem “really reasonable.”
The 35-year-old grew up in Seattle and moved to the Aberdeen area at the age of 16, where she quickly became addicted to heroin. She has been clean and sober for almost two months after she was facing two years in jail for drug related crimes.
“I’m finding myself, who I am without all the drugs,” she said. “I’m learning to live life on life’s terms.”
Mix is the one with the dog Brown mentioned in court, a pit bull named Coco. Mix started doing meth when he was just 12 years old and said he’s been in trouble for 22 years. When he was introduced to drug court, he was facing nearly four years in jail for drug-related crimes.
“I was living in denial. I didn’t want to change. I thought, if I change, I’ll be lonely. Boy was I wrong.” He said the program has taught him to be honest and be himself, and after just a short time in the program said “I feel wonderful, I feel good. I’m just loving life.”
Brown said drug court personnel are constantly in training, learning what has worked from successful drug courts throughout the country. He and others connected to the court traveled to Houston, Texas, in late May for four days of classes, “learning the latest research on what works in these programs,” he told the court at the beginning of Tuesday’s session. “It may not always seem like it, but there is something of a method to what we do here. So we need to make sure we are always learning. You control your recovery, we just don’t want to do things that set you back; we want to do things to help you.”
Brown said two similar therapeutic courts are in the works. One will be a family recovery court, designed to reunite parents and their children when all can be brought back together in a safe and sober environment. The other will be a veteran’s court, which will deal with helping military veterans who have fallen into a cycle of addiction and crime due to their experiences while serving their country.