One of the biggest things those involved in Juneau Therapeutic Court (JTC) talk about is how difficult the program is.
“You’d be surprised how hard it is to convince people to do this. It’s very hard,” Grace Lee, a private defense attorney said. “They’d rather go to jail. It’s easier. This is a hard program, not going to lie.”
In a presentation delivered at the JAMHI Health and Wellness building on Tuesday night, JTC members talked to the public about their work to build better futures and generate better outcomes than simply incarcerating offenders for petty crimes. The presentation came as part of the Inside Passages mental health speaker series, sponsored in Juneau by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Your whole mindset shifts. It’s a team-based approach,” said Emily Wright, a prosecutor for the City and Borough of Juneau. “We come up with incentives or sanctions while coming up with how to encourage them to be their best selves.”
The JTC is about 14 years old, and its counterpart for drug and mental health issues, the Coordinated Resources Project (CRP) is will turn 7 this year. An alternative option for a number of nonviolent crimes, chief among them DUIs and property crimes such as theft and burglary, the therapeutic courts are intended to help people actively work toward rebuilding themselves for a brighter future rather than simply punishing them, Lee said.
“That is why therapeutic court is helpful: we get to know people, we get to know their case, we get to know their situation,” Lee said. “The great thing about the therapeutic court is we get more than a case number.”
Lee said that the typical court process is very fact based, focusing on the hard data of the case: name, age, gender, date and time of arrest. It fails to account, Lee said, for issues such as mental health, historical trauma, physical health, education or socio-economic status, in addition to other factors. The JTC and CRP are intended to provide a more nuanced approach — to treat diseases rather than symptoms.
“These are the things we need to know so we have a more responsible justice system,” Wright said.
In 2018, Lee said, she had 1,160 cases, which scarcely enables her to get to know her clients and help them arrive at the best outcome. This year is shaping up to have roughly the same number. With the therapeutic courts, Lee said, offenders can visit the program, and if they’re willing and the district attorney agrees, they can try a different path than going to prison.
“There’s a sweet spot for people who this program works for,” Lee said. “If you’re too mentally ill, we just don’t have the resources.”
Not all crimes are eligible for the therapeutic courts; crimes like arson, sexual assault, homicide, and domestic violence are out. Common crimes include theft, burglary, DUIs, and sometimes robbery. While most violent crimes are out, there are exceptions.
“We had an assault on a police officer. That was an interesting one,” Wright said. “The police officer themself called and said, this person needs CRP.”
Walking the walk
The program itself can be grueling. CRP is less structured, and is dedicated to treating substance abuse and mental health issues. JTC is a set 18-month program and follows an inflexible schedule of recovery meetings, counselings, court appointments, social support groups and urinalysis tests. It’s an intense course of meetings, especially for people who might not have a job, a home, or a driver’s license.
“We have limits to the program. Each person has a treatment team of 10 people who are paying attention to them,” said Rachel Gearhart, director of behavioral health for JAMHI. “Ten people who are paying attention and following up and talking to each other.”
JTC currently has 14 out of 15 of its seats filled and CRP has four out of 15, said Michelle Delkettie, the Therapeutic Courts program coordinator. The program is one of several in Alaska, Delkettie said, including other therapeutic courts in Anchorage, Bethel, Fairbanks, Kenai and Palmer. There’s also a Veterans Court in Anchorage for veterans who commit crimes.
The groups operate and attend meetings at JAMHI or Gastineau Human Service Corporation together, which helps to form healthy relationships and keep them on track to improve their lives, which contributes to the success of the program. Delkettie said that 60 percent of the graduates from the program don’t reoffend, a much better recidivism rate than is the standard for Alaska, which can reach as high as 83 percent after a few years out of prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“It helps change their friend groups,” Wright said. “This helps create a friend group, a support group that they may never have had before.”
Wright said creating new friend groups with people who are also seeking to improve themselves can give clients strength in numbers.
A different path
Members of the therapeutic courts are also worried about demographic groups that are already over-represented in the state’s prisons.
“The people who are in DOC custody are not representative of (Alaska’s) population,” Wright said. “We’re trying hard to be very cognizant of our demographics. Clearly, the DOC one is one to be concerned about.”
While the percentage of white (non-Hispanic) and Alaska Native residents of the state is 66.7 percent and 14.8 percent respectively, according to the U.S. Census, the prison demographics are very different. According to the Alaska Department of Corrections, while white inmates only make up 43.1 percent of the prison population, Alaska Natives represent more than 37.3 percent, a staggering difference from the state demographics, according Alaska DOC’s statistics.
Delkettie said that while she’s unsure what the cost per client over the course of the program comes to, it costs $200 a day to house someone in an Alaska Department of Corrections facility. And prison is unlikely to steer someone onto a better path, as the recidivism rate in Alaska amply demonstrates.
“We’re hoping that they’re not just following the rules because they have to do. It feels good to be sober. It feels good to have a team of friends in recovery,” said Autumn Flaningam, a case officer and probation officer with the state of Alaska. “It feels good to build this new lifestyle.”
Delkettie said that many look at the program and choose not to enter, taking a quicker prison term and getting it over with than the strenuous multi-month path of improvement. But, she said, those who do opt to go the uphill route generally graduate. There’s help offered with the program for finding somewhere safe to live, and for transport around town.
“We do what we can to allow people to come into the program and get the benefit of it,” said Dara Gibson, assistant district attorney for the State of Alaska.
The program is free for clients, though once they graduate, clients will work with the program to figure out what they can pay back within their own budgets, Delkettie said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.