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Shawn Vestal: Spokane County’s Drug Court saves money, lives

Fri., April 25, 2014

Jeremy Sparber hugs Jamie Hummell as they graduate from Spokane County’s Drug Court Thursday at the Spokane County Courthouse. Criminal justice experts identified Drug Court as one of the “centers of excellence” among the region’s programs. (Colin Mulvany)
Jeremy Sparber hugs Jamie Hummell as they graduate from Spokane County’s Drug Court Thursday at the Spokane County Courthouse. Criminal justice experts identified Drug Court as one of the “centers of excellence” among the region’s programs. (Colin Mulvany)

When a trio of local legal experts – a retired judge, a former federal prosecutor and a longtime local attorney – examined the criminal justice system, they identified Spokane County’s Drug Court as a “pocket of excellence.”

The court, which puts drug-addicted criminal offenders through a yearlong march of treatment and intensive oversight in exchange for a dismissal of their charges, drives down the recidivism rate and saves money – and should be expanded, the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission concluded.

Jamie Hummell also has a high opinion of the court, but for more personal reasons.

“I was in a dark place for a while,” said Hummell, a 30-year-old mother of two. “Drug Court saved my life, and changed my life. … It taught me how to live day to day, completely clean and sober. And, to me, that’s saving my life.”

Hummel and five others graduated from Spokane County Behavioral Health Therapeutic Drug Court on Thursday. It was among the largest monthly graduation ceremonies for the court, which handles around 200 cases yearly. Established in 1996, it was the first local example of a “problem-solving court,” which attempts to combine intense oversight, treatment and services to help nonviolent offenders change their lives.

The county’s mental health court and the city’s fledgling community court are other examples of the approach, which is aimed at stopping the costly and ineffective revolving door to the jail.

“If you put an addict in jail, they come out of there an addict,” said Sandra Altshuler, the court’s coordinator.

In Drug Court, felony offenders whose crimes are connected to their addictions can qualify if they agree to the terms. Participants are drug-tested regularly and must attend treatment and check in at court frequently. If they miss appointments, they are sanctioned with community service, and the court tailors their conditions – from sanctions to incentives to their treatment plan – based on their progress.

Participants aren’t kicked out if they fall off the wagon, so long as they stick with the program and keep being tested. But before they graduate they must accumulate at least four months of clean tests. It is, for many of them, a difficult road full of setbacks.

“Originally … people thought it was a soft-on-crime approach,” Altshuler said. “But people have come to realize it is a hard-on-crime approach – or hard on addicts.”

Still, there is a human ingredient in Drug Court that participants cite as a powerful force. From the judge to the attorneys to the therapists, there is a steady stream of support and encouragement.

“They really do stand by your side,” said Jeremy Sparber, a 34-year-old who has tried many other types of addiction treatment without success. “They give you every chance in the world to get it right.”

Nationwide, problem-solving courts are growing as the need for alternatives to expensive and inexpensive warehousing of nonviolent criminals. A 2011 national analysis of the courts, “Painting the Current Picture: A National Report on Drug Courts and other Problem-Solving Court Programs in the United States,” concluded: “The effectiveness of drug courts is not a matter of conjecture. It is the product of more than two decades of exhaustive scientific research.”

Spokane County’s Drug Court has tracked the recidivism rate among its population, and the results are dramatic, according to statistics compiled by the court. From 2007 to 2011, the recidivism rate among those who graduated was 11 percent in the two years after Drug Court, compared to 52 percent among those who qualified for the program but did not enter it.

Graduates spent a total of 5,211 days in jail in the two years before entering the program, and that figure plummeted by 84 percent in the two years after. Even those who fail to complete the program showed improvement: The recidivism rate among those who quit the program was 36 percent, and the number of days spent in jail was much lower than those who qualified but didn’t enter.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has calculated that every dollar spent in the types of treatment offered in drug court return more than $40 in savings, in everything from crime to education to social services.

At Thursday’s graduation in the fourth-floor courtroom of Judge Ellen Kalama Clark, it was standing room only. Family, friends, fellow Drug Court members and court officials crowded into the room, which was decorated with banners of congratulations. Cubes of cake sat on little paper plates, and a row of gift bags and roses awaited the graduates.

“It is, without a doubt, the best day we have in this courthouse,” said Kalama Clark, who took over the Drug Court a few months ago from Judge Harold Clarke.

Sparber said he has struggled with addiction to heroin, methamphetamine and alcohol for years. He has sought treatment in various forms, including inpatient programs, but not until he landed in trouble with the law and entered Drug Court has he been able to quit, he said.

He was charged with possession of stolen property, among other things, for having a bunch of stolen credit cards that he got through his participation in “the drug game.”

“I was so messed up I can’t even tell you half the truth” about what happened, he said.

Over the past year, though, he managed to get clean. He’s also gotten custody of his daughter and is moving toward adopting his stepdaughter, found a place to live, and has been working part time learning to fix cars. He’s also got a sense of optimism about his ability to stay clean.

“It’s by far the best program I’ve ever been in in my life,” he said.

His daughters were in the crowd at Thursday’s graduation. After all of the speeches given by therapists and court officials and others, they piped up: “Congratulations, we love you, and go Daddy!”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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