Six or seven months into her time in Ada County’s drug court program, Hillary Clark relapsed.
It was the spring of 2009, and she needed money for methamphetamine and marijuana, which she said helped her cope with hardships. So she started writing bad checks and asked people to cash them for her. It worked, and she ended up stealing thousands of dollars from local banks.
But it also led to her arrest on a felony warrant. In the midst of penning an apology letter while she sat in the Ada County Jail, she broke down crying and realized she could lose everything to these charges.
Even though she’d been in the court program for months, she didn’t take it seriously – really seriously – until then, she said.
Now, years later, Clark is employed at the place that changed her life, the Ada County Problem Solving Court. She’s been clean since her graduation from the program in 2011.
“Drug court saved my life,” she said. “I’m grateful for drug court every day I get to live and wake up.”
Ada County’s drug court is one of Idaho’s 71 problem-solving courts, which range from drug courts and DUI courts to mental health courts, veterans treatment courts, and child-protection drug courts, for drug offenders who are trying to reunify with their families.
The special courts are targeted at high-need offenders at high risk to reoffend. After pleading guilty, they’re enrolled in intensive, one- to two-year programs that require them to undergo frequent drug testing, participate in treatment, hold down a job, pay restitution and appear in court to show their progress.
If they succeed, they graduate – and may have their charge reduced or dismissed. If they fail, they could head to prison for their full term.
“It’s not just about keeping people out of prison,” said Sara Thomas, administrative director of Idaho’s courts. “It’s about making fundamental differences in people’s lives.”
Since drug and other problem-solving courts started in Idaho in 1998, more than 20,000 Idaho offenders have enrolled in them, and more than 7,000 have graduated.
Scott Ronan, Idaho’s state coordinator of problem-solving courts, said some of those participants are still enrolled. “But the graduation rates for problem-solving courts are not that high,” he said. “I think because we do serve high-risk, high-need populations, truly to move the needle … it’s actually fairly significant to move it at all with this population.”
In 2017, Idaho’s graduation rate from its problem-solving courts was 60.4 percent.
In the last state fiscal year that ended June 30, Idaho’s problem-solving courts served 2,788 people, according to Ronan.
Not an easy out
An arrest is not an automatic disqualifier from a problem-solving court, which means Clark had another chance to finish Ada County drug court. She took it.
“I came back after I served a couple of weeks in jail,” she said. “It was like a fresh new start for me.”
That’s not to say it was easy. The program, like drug courts across Idaho, was demanding, and Clark had to adjust to its meticulous structure and to people telling her what to do. Marreen Baker Burton, who has directed Ada’s program since its inception 20 years ago, is blunt when she talks about it.
“It’s the hardest thing I can imagine,” Burton said.
But for Clark, it worked. She graduated from the program in August 2011, and she’s been clean ever since. Life hasn’t been perfect – she’s had to cope with a death since then, without the help of drugs – but she’s made it through. Today, she works as a secretary in the Ada County Problem Solving Courts, doing what she can to help others. She still laughs when she realizes she works for the county, something she never would have believed 10 years ago, but she’s serious when she talks about the other ways her life has changed. And she never went to prison.
At a time when Idaho’s prisons are increasingly overcrowded, problem-solving courts are a bright spot. Recidivism — the same offenders committing another crime and returning to prison — is a central problem in Idaho’s prison crowding.
Idaho’s felony drug court participants had a recidivism rate of 39 percent, compared to 51 percent of offenders who received a retained-jurisdiction “rider,” which involves a brief prison term followed by probation; and 54 percent of those who simply received felony probation.
“They do produce positive outcomes,” Thomas said. “I will tell you that I have watched these courts very closely for my entire career.” Thomas was Idaho’s state appellate public defender before she took over as the state courts’ administrative director two years ago.
The problem-solving courts are closely studied, and their programs are based on scientifically supported evidence.
Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton, who presides over one of Ada County’s three felony drug courts, said one of the things she enjoys about handling drug court cases is how knowledgeable staff members are about current psychological research — she and the rest of the staff often know about new studies and treatment models years before others in the criminal justice system, she said.
Thomas said, “Treatment alone does not work. Intensive supervision alone does not work. Effective practices provide both at the correct dosage.”
Studies have shown that providing too many services to someone who doesn’t need them actually can cause harm, rather than progress, she said.
The program in problem-solving courts is phased, with most offering four or five phases before a participant graduates. Requirements — and court appearances — are frequent at the start and gradually phase down as the offender moves toward self-sufficiency.
In the first phase, Burton said, they might have to go to court every day and attend three or four therapy groups a week. Some members must pass a breathalyzer test twice a day.
“Sometimes we see people every single day, and as they go along, they get more freedom,” she said. “If they’re struggling, we add things to their treatment.”
The goal is to change a person’s behavior little by little, said Norton, who worked as a prosecutor in drug court before she became a judge. Seeing the same participants again and again allows her to help them in ways traditional probation or prison does not, she said.
“Because we, quite frankly, don’t have enough probation officers, they don’t have the luxury to actually call someone in once a week,” Norton said. “Their caseloads are very high.”
But in drug court, Norton regularly meets with case managers and other staff, and together they evaluate reports of each drug court participant on her docket. They decide what the next step should be for that person, which Norton relays to the participant when they appear before her in court. Participants also receive representation from a defense attorney, who helps the judge and prosecutor understand their needs.
It’s a behavior-based system with rewards and sanctions — everything from assigning personal essays to short stints in jail to community service hours.
In court, participants must tell Norton the names of their sponsors and prove they work a job a set number of hours a week. That’s important because, Burton said, a majority of the people she works with never graduated high school or held a regular job for long. Helping them achieve an education and find work is a major goal of the program.
Drug court also strives to recognize participants for their good behavior, and it isn’t unusual for a courtroom to burst into applause in support of a participant’s success.
Counties that host the courts must pick up some of the costs. The state Department of Health and Welfare participates in the treatment programs, and the state Department of Correction provides the probation officers. Prosecutors, public defenders, and private providers all can be involved.
“They are a team effort, and they take resources from a lot of different places,” Thomas said. “The counties that agree to host these problem-solving courts have a tremendous amount of skin in the game.”
Though the programs are intensive, their costs are dwarfed by prison costs. A 2014 Idaho comparison estimated the cost of serving one felony offender in drug court for a year at just under $4,000; the cost of holding that same offender in prison for a year was more than $20,000.
Ada County’s drug court budget is about $454,000, Burton wrote in an email. She oversees 38 employees across five courts; most of them are part-time. In addition to them, attorneys, judges and court clerks contribute their time to problem-solving courts in the county.
It costs Canyon County about $8,000 a person per year to go through the program. Roughly four people could be in treatment court per year for the same cost as one prison inmate, which is about $28,000, said Ron Christian, 3rd District manager and coordinator for treatment courts.
Idaho’s first problem-solving courts were drug courts in Kootenai and Ada counties in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, major legislation passed to expand the program statewide.
“It was the 2000 law that really kicked it off,” Ronan said. “Since then, there have been efforts here and there to try to expand wherever we can.”
In fiscal year 2017, Idaho’s problem-solving courts served 2,743 offenders statewide; that included 311 in Canyon County’s 3rd Judicial District, and 580 in Ada County’s 4th District. The statewide number rose to 2,788 in FY18.
A “gap analysis” study in 2016 identified 342 offenders statewide who would have been good candidates for the special court programs, but weren’t enrolled because there weren’t enough slots. That included 212 who could have been in drug court, 36 in DUI court, 24 in veterans treatment court, and 70 in mental health court.
While Burton with Ada County said she knows the model works, she also knows any problem-solving court involves a great deal of collaboration between multiple people and agencies. She and her staff have to do the best they can with a finite amount of money, which means she is going to have to turn some people away.
“It’s a budget, time, court resources, space and funding question,” Burton wrote in an email. “Drug Courts can’t be expanded in the current resource environment. We would have to have additional prosecutors, public defenders, Judges, treatment funding and coordination staff to address the current need.”
The limiting factors range from staff at an array of levels, from probation officers to treatment providers to prosecutors, to funding for services like frequent drug and alcohol testing, specific types of treatment and recovery support programs.
Ronan, the state coordinator of special courts, said those numbers likely have grown since then.
“I have a lot of jurisdictions saying we do need more, based on the current demand,” he said.
It doesn’t always work. Clark knew people in drug court who have since relapsed and are either in prison or back to using drugs. But a few of her best friends are still clean and sober, like she is.
“We’ve seen each other at our worst, and we’ve seen each other at our best,” she said. “And they’re my best friends.”
Ada County Drug Court has changed over the course of its two-decade lifespan, Burton said. In 1999, when it began, there were fewer participants, and she estimated roughly 80 percent of them used methamphetamine as their drug of choice.
Today, she said, more people are mixing that drug with heroin and prescription pills, which has increased drug overdoses. She has also seen a sharp increase in the number of program participants. Today, she said, there are more than 261 drug court participants in Ada County.
“Boise has big-city problems,” she said. “We are in the middle of a battle here. It’s huge.”
On average, Burton denies between 10 and 15 people a week entry to the program because there is not room for them, she said.
“While prison is overcrowded, so are we,” Burton said. “We’ve been overcrowded for many years now. As we’ve continued to grow, we’ve hit a place where we can’t grow anymore.”
Still, Norton said drug court could serve to help lower Idaho’s prison population. It’s part of the reason she believes her work with the hundreds of drug court participants is important.
“That’s half a prison, honestly,” she said. “Our court has been viewed as an alternative to prison.”