Clark County’s drug court celebrates 20 years of success
VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Tabby Stokes had no dreams, goals or hopes for the future. By age 22, she had been abusing drugs and alcohol for a decade.
She was arrested 10 times throughout her addiction, Stokes said, and enrolled in Clark County’s Adult Felony Drug Court in 2005 with no real desire to change her life.
“That’s not what I got. I got a team full of people who supported me and showed me I had value. . I’ve kept moving forward on the trajectory drug court put me on,” said Stokes, who has a master’s degree in social work, and works as an intervention specialist at Fort Vancouver High School and as an adjunct faculty member at Clark College.
Clark County’s felony drug court celebrated its 20th anniversary Thursday afternoon at the Public Service Center. Criminal justice officials rubbed shoulders with a small portion of the hundreds of graduates of the therapeutic court who have turned their lives around.
The celebration also honored retired Clark County Superior Court Judge James Rulli. He was instrumental in creating the adult drug court and other alternative courts locally. Wednesday was his last day on the job.
It all began in 1999 following years of planning.
While serving on the bench, Rulli presided over cases where he would see the same defendant repeatedly. It was the mid-1990s, and alternative courts were being created nationwide. Seattle already had its own drug court when Rulli proposed establishing a local version.
Speakers at Thursday’s celebration credited Rulli for creating one of the best drugs courts in the country. Shannon Carey, co-president and senior researcher at policy analysis firm NPC Research, said she refers other drug court coordinators to Clark County’s Therapeutic Specialty Courts for “boots on the ground advice.”
Drug courts allow nonviolent defendants with substance use and mental health disorders to undergo treatment and supervision rather than go to jail. Proponents say it saves lives, as well as money, an aspect that Carey said is important when convincing policymakers to direct money toward specialty courts.
More than 3,000 drug courts operate nationwide. Eighty-three of them are in Washington.
A total of 641 graduates have completed the county’s adult felony drug court, according to the court’s own data. A 2017-2018 Superior Court biennial report shows that 82 percent of the court’s alumni have not been convicted of another felony. The statewide recidivism rate as of May 2017 was 65 percent. Drug courts save up to $27 for every $1 invested, officials say.
Since its inception, Clark County’s felony drug court has evolved and branched off into additional therapeutic courts. In 2007, Rulli started the Juvenile Recovery Court program.
Drug court participants “have been arrested several times. They use substances daily and that use started at a young age. Rather than seek that high, the drug court offers a change. And now, there are much more resources to help them,” Rulli said in a recent interview.
In April 2017, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik expanded his office’s policy to allow certain low-level felony cases to be eligible for dismissal upon a defendant’s completion of drug court. Because of Golik’s new policy, 22 adult defendants avoided a felony conviction on their records, according to the biennial report. Proponents say that outcome, whether it’s the avoidance of a felony or lesser conviction, allows people to overcome barriers in housing, education and employment.
But not everyone is on board with the treatment method. Some attorneys have been known to call drug court “hug a thug.”
However, many drug court graduates go on to become drug treatment professionals. Graduates say drug court clients more easily relate to people who have been through similar experiences.
Jessica DeFrees, a drug court graduate, helped create the mentorship program Consumer Voices Are Born, which is funded by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Participants are matched with a mentor who guides them with recovery coaching, housing support and financial planning.
“Everyone who works here has either identified as having a substance use disorder and/or mental health issues,” DeFrees said. “That’s really the crux of it. I don’t think I could do this job as well if I didn’t have the history that I have.”
On Christmas Eve 2007, police arrested DeFrees at Kohl’s in east Vancouver. She had an eight ball (an eighth of an ounce) of methamphetamine in her possession. The resulting charges were the first time she’d faced a felony, she said.
The state offered her diversion, a strict set of guidelines that would keep her out of jail and result in an alternative sentence if completed. DeFrees said she wasn’t able to stay on top of it; she wanted to keep getting high.
When she was charged with violating her bail, the court gave her another chance: enroll in and finish drug court or face hard time, she said.
Despite the prospect of a severe punishment hanging over her head, DeFrees said she struggled in drug court. It took her 2 1/2 years to graduate. She was only six months clean at the time. Still, the intervention worked.
“Once I started doing it, the way it’s set up, it’s actually pretty easy, and your life starts to improve fast,” DeFrees said.
″(Attorney) Brad Finegood became an inspiration for me. I really looked up to him. I wanted to make him proud, and he was really engaged,” she said. “But really, everyone knows all about you and how you’re doing in the court. They stay on top of your progress.”