On June 8, Danny Petersen stood in a court room at Dimond Courthouse, finally ready to leave.
That day marked his graduation from Juneau Therapeutic Court (JTC), an 18-month program that serves as an alternative to jail time for alcohol and drug addicts. Petersen entered the program in December 2015 and graduated June 8 in front of family, friends and others in the JTC program.
He kept his thoughts brief, but said he felt bad for other therapeutic court programs across the country.
“I’m sure they’ve got OK people,” Petersen said, “but they don’t have you guys.”
His graduation signaled that he had done hundreds of hours of therapy, passed numerous urine tests, checked in on time with those running the program and showed a concerted effort to get sober.
More importantly, his graduation signaled the fact that he figured out a way to start living sober. He’s working at Lowpete Construction (along with his father Bob) and has turned to exercise as an outlet, explaining, “that’s how I get high now.” His bonds with his family have healed and even strengthened, he said.
The past 18 months had challenged him, but following his emotional graduation ceremony, he was beaming.
“I was skeptical after I started for a little while,” Petersen admitted, “because it’s a lot to do and it starts to break you, but it gets easier. You’ve just gotta make it through.”
Expanding the program
Long before Petersen was happily (and soberly) leaving a courtroom, he was committing a burglary in 2015. He was doing so to support an addiction that included numerous drugs, or as he put it, “all of them.”
Had he committed the crime 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have been eligible for JTC, which was originally formed as a program for those who had committed felony DUIs. It would take them through numerous classes to combat alcohol addiction and get them back to a healthier lifestyle.
Then, around the time Judge Thomas Nave took over the program, it expanded to include those with drug addictions as well. They don’t accept people who have committed violent crimes, but accept people who commit thefts that are related to their addictions. Due to a growing number of drug-related crimes, Nave said, it was the obvious move to make to expand the program.
“Meth and heroin are the drugs of choice these days,” Nave said, “and both hugely addicting and debilitating over time.”
To enter the program, a defendant’s lawyer will talk with the district attorney about whether or not the defendant is a good candidate for JTC. The defendant must also have interest in joining. The maximum capacity for the program is 15 people, allowing for Nave and Program Coordinator Samantha Abernathy to dedicate ample time to each participant.
Nave was a bit skeptical at first about expanding the program, but has seen it work well. From 2010-2015, Nave pointed out, 31 people graduated from JTC and only three of them have ended up committing crimes after finishing the program (just under 10 percent).
Nationally, about 25 percent of people who go through therapeutic court end up reoffending within the first two years, so Nave has been pleased with the success that Juneau’s program has had.
The carrot and the stick
One of those graduates who has remained out of trouble is Michael Van Linden, who never intended on getting clean even when he entered the program.
“When I got into the program, I never really got the idea that I would stay clean,” Van Linden said. “I was just gonna do the program, go through the motions and as soon as I could, I was gonna go back to using again.”
Now, not only has he been clean since late 2014 but he’s also the Re-Entry and Recovery Support Coordinator at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau. Every day, he comes to work and helps people work through their addictions.
Van Linden was originally arrested on Valentine’s Day 2014 for a DUI and entered the program soon afterward. Alcohol wasn’t his only issue, as he also used meth, habitually smoked marijuana and dabbled in other drugs. While in the JTC program, he began smoking pot again and even faked his urine tests.
That ruse didn’t last long, however, as Nave found out about the faked tests and sent Van Linden to Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC) for two weeks and then to Rainforest Recovery Center for 10 more days. Van Linden was released from jail Sept. 21, 2014, and said he hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since then.
Van Linden said that brief trip to jail showed that those running the JTC program weren’t going to coddle him, but that they also wanted him to get better.
“The good thing about the program is that they do have sanctions,” Van Linden said. “They’re able to muscle you into the right way to go, and that’s good. It’s a combination of carrot and stick. They have enough stick to get you to go where you need to go, but then there’s also incentives.”
Chasing that carrot and that eventual goal of sobriety is a difficult task, Nave has seen over the years. Prior to Petersen’s graduation celebration, Nave had to repeat the sentence he had given Van Linden a couple years earlier.
One man in the program had failed multiple drug tests while in the program and Nave was sending him to LCCC. He told Nave it’s harder than he thinks to stay sober, and Nave said he understood.
“We’re not ready to quit on you,” Nave said, moments before the man was handcuffed and taken from the room, “so I hope you’re not ready to quit on us.”
Eyeing the future
There are plenty of people who don’t make it through the program, which leaves Nave disappointed. The future of the therapeutic court program, however, gives him hope.
With Senate Bill 91, which aims to cut down on incarceration totals, taking effect, more and more people will be funneled into therapeutic court programs. Nave said therapeutic courts are “integral” in ensuring that SB 91 becomes a success.
Watching these graduation ceremonies gives Nave even more excitement for the future. The outpouring of emotion, particularly from family members, sticks with Nave. At Petersen’s graduation ceremony, Petersen’s father Bob spoke with a voice strained by emotion as he said he never thought he and his son could work together.
Petersen echoed his father’s sentiments.
“I never ever would have thought that you’d be one of my best friends,” Petersen said. “The way I think about you now and the way I used to, is like night and day. You’ve done more to help me than I could ever thank you for. You’re a good man and you’re my best friend.”
Bob and Danny’s sister Brooke were with him after the graduation ceremony, along with his girlfriend and other friends in the JTC program. He’d been coming to the courthouse every other week for the past year and a half, and eyed the door as his friends and family chatted.
“Alright,” Petersen said, “let’s get out of this room.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.