More than three years in the making, Spokane County’s first DUI Court “graduation” ceremony conferred new leases on life instead of diplomas to a half-dozen former drunken drivers.
“I’m just thankful that I got caught,” Kathleen Copeland told Judge Richard White and other public officials last week. “You guys are lifesavers.”
Copeland cited her own alcohol-caused kidney disease as well as people she might have killed if she had continued to drive under the influence.
That and other remembrances of alcohol’s victims tempered an otherwise upbeat gathering in the District Court’s Spokane Valley courtroom, home of the DUI Court.
White began the celebration by calling attention to photographs of five people who were killed by drunken drivers.
“It’s not just about you six,” White told graduates of the DUI Intensive Supervision Program he has directed for the past two years. “It’s about those six people, too.”
The photographs came from a memorial display at the office of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council, where a plaque proclaims: “The work we do, we do for those that we have lost.”
“Our executive director’s son is in the middle,” said Kendra Juarez, programs coordinator for the council’s Prevention Center.
She pointed to the photo of Linda Thompson’s 3-year-old son, Trevor Pierce, who was killed in 1986 by a chronic drunken driver.
Alcoholism also claimed the lives of two people in the DUI Court, White said.
He said the program was about 1 1/2 years old when Jeremy Danielson took his own life while still in his early 20s.
“I knew this program was going to be successful when I went to his funeral and saw so many of you there,” White said, addressing many of the 53 who remain in the program as well as the graduates.
Then Ed Sedow died last year from alcohol-induced liver disease.
“God bless his soul, too,” White said.
But the ceremony was about hope for the future.
“We want to congratulate you tonight as professionals on this great achievement,” Juarez said, identifying herself as the daughter of a recovering alcoholic. “As community members, we want to thank you for making good choices, for making all our families safer, for making our roads safer.”
Graduate Tamra Moore was grateful for the opportunity to raise her new daughter without alcohol’s influence.
“My daughter hasn’t seen that side of me, and it gives me the chance to be the type of person I want to be,” she said.
A single mother, Moore credited the DUI Court with helping her find the strength to do the right things with her youngest child and to try to make amends with the older children who saw her at her worst.
Graduate Rhiannon Sells knows about that. Sells’ 9-year-old daughter was in the back seat when she was last arrested for drunken driving.
None of the graduates had fewer than two DUIs, and one had five. Some who are still in the program have many more than that.
“It’s a day at a time with him,” White said after the ceremony, nodding toward a man with an alcohol monitor strapped to his ankle.
White refers to the DUI Court program as “making the world a little bit bigger.” Participants start under tight control and earn freedom gradually.
“We just keep making their world bigger and bigger and bigger until they notice, ‘Oh, my God, it’s been two years,’ ” White said.
Many participants relapse during their first year in the program, and White orders them to spend more time in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – which are an integral part of the program – or he sends them to jail.
“It could be five days, 10 days, 15 days – whatever I think is necessary,” he said.
Five of the six graduates served more than 90 days in jail.
Even though the program is voluntary and participants may well serve more time in jail or on electronic monitoring than they would otherwise, only one has dropped out.
Two were expelled for continued drunken driving, but White said one of those continues to come to court sessions occasionally even though he gets no credit.
“The last time I saw him, about two months ago, he was about six months clean and sober,” White said. “We’ll do anything we can to help him.”
The man’s father also had an alcohol problem and expressed his appreciation for help he received 16 years ago in a letter so moving that White had it framed and mounted on a wall in his office.
Spokane County had no treatment-oriented DUI or drug courts at that time. White said such “therapeutic courts” were developed about 20 years ago in Dade County, Fla., (now Miami-Dade County), and Spokane County officials began studying the idea about 14 years ago.
Superior Court judges established a drug court 11 years ago, and District Court judges decided 3 1/2 years ago to follow suit with a DUI court.
Getting into the Spokane County DUI program requires only a desire to quit drinking. Getting out with a gold star requires a year of sobriety, completion of a clinical treatment program, weekly meetings with a probation officer, attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step program meetings, and twice-a-month court hearings, a process that typically spans three years.
During the court hearings, White abandons his bench to sit at an attorney table where participants come up one at a time to discuss their progress – loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.
If one of his charges has a crisis between hearings, “it’s like a fire drill,” White said. He clears his docket and gives the problem immediate attention.
Probation officers also provide personal service, and DUI Court graduates singled out probation officer Julie Driscoll again and again at last Thursday’s ceremony.
“It’s really hard going to the court system when everybody’s against you, and it seemed like it was, but Julie is the first one who actually stood up for us and said, ‘Hey, you guys can do it,’ ” graduate Tracy Mesecher said.
Alcoholics Anonymous, another source of personal support, also received kudos.
Many believe a key to the success for therapeutic courts is the personal attention of judges. White thinks the courts also are efficient use of judicial resources.
“In an hour and a half, I can talk to 30 people and communicate my disappointment or my pleasure in what they’re doing,” he said.
Many judges have said such intimate contact gave them an epiphany, “that they would never look at defendants the same way again,” White said.
Retired District Court Judge Michael Padden agreed. As one of the DUI Court’s first judges, along with District Court Judge Patti Walker, Padden turned out last week to see the fruits of his labor.
“I’m very excited to see these people succeed and be able to change their lives,” he said. “It’s sort of a redemption experience.”
“This is the best day of my judicial career,” White said.