Task force looks to expand courts that offer treatment instead of prison time

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate floor session, March 13, 2019.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate floor session in March 2019. He is chairing the Legislature’s Task Force on Therapeutic Courts, which is scheduled to make recommendations on how to expand the courts’ capacity before the next Legislature convenes in January. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A task force of lawmakers and criminal justice experts is examining how the state can expand a system of courts that offer treatment instead of jail time. 

Anchorage resident Ron Wilson was headed to  prison in 2008, after multiple cocaine-related arrests.

“I was facing six years and just in complete dismay,” Wilson said. “And there was a lot of people hurt and affected by this: my family and my parents. And I was just completely lost and completely broken.” 

Ron Wilson is a member of the Task Force on Therapeutic Courts formed by the Legislature. Wilson related his experience with drug court during a June 18 task force meeting (Photo courtesy/ Ron Wilson)

But he was offered an alternative to prison. He attended drug court, which offered him treatment. It’s one of 14 courts around the state known as therapeutic courts. Wilson said the experience led to him stop using drugs.

“It allowed me to be out with my family, allowed me to work while I was going through treatment,” Wilson said, adding that he also benefited from the structure provided by the program. “While I was out and able to do the things that were available prior to incarceration, I was able to but refrained from it, because of the structure and also because of the oversight.”

Wilson described this experience at a June 18 meeting of the Task Force on Therapeutic Courts. The Legislature formed the task force — which includes two lawmakers and eight experts on therapeutic courts — to make recommendations on how to have more people participate in these  courts in the state. 

The courts have different names and rules throughout the state — some focus on drug use, others on alcohol. And some specialize in categories of defendants, like parents or military veterans.

Michelle Bartley coordinates the courts’ work throughout the state. She pointed to studies that have found positive results for those who complete the treatment offered by these courts. 

“These evaluations have all identified positive outcomes that include things like reduced criminal and behavioral health recidivism,” she said. 

There’s a broad interest in expanding therapeutic courts. But there are a few obstacles. The courts are at capacity in some parts of the state. And opportunities for therapeutic courts depend on the willingness of prosecutors, judges and treatment providers to participate. 

And sometimes the person charged with a crime isn’t interested because of the time it takes to complete the treatment, which can be up to 18 months. 

Bartley said a longer-standing problem is that everyone who works in these  courts needs to be trained in what makes them different from traditional courts. And with turnover in public defenders, prosecutors and treatment providers, there’s a constant need.

“Because these courts have so many working parts at one time, all it takes is one person to not be adequately trained to the process, and it kinds of throws a hitch into our get-along,” she said. “So it’s really important to train staff, and training staff can be quite expensive.” 

Deputy Public Defender Benjamin Muse also said the state would benefit from building a broader knowledge of therapeutic courts among lawyers.

Unlike criminal courts, where prosecutors and defense attorneys are adversaries, in therapeutic courts, they’re part of the same team, led by a judge, that also includes treatment providers, probation officers and others. Each team member needs to be trained.

“I think it’s a very frequent occurrence where an attorney will go for six months working with a team and then quit,” Muse said. “And they’re basically, when you’re six months in, you just kind of become competent working in that… learning the ropes, learning how to work in a non-adversarial setting, so I think there’s a lot of room for improvement.” 

Muse said it isn’t just differences in training that limit the courts’ effectiveness. Therapeutic court eligibility and the treatment offered differ across the state. 

“There is a disparity,” he said. “These courts don’t operate uniformly across the state, in terms of what their policies and procedures are.”

Anchorage Democratic Senator Bill Wielechowski chairs the task force. He said the Legislature formed the task force because it recognized the courts’ potential. 

“You’re really trying to get people who are at just critical times in their lives to change their lives for the better,” he said. “They’re very intensive, but they’re very effective at the same time, so the thought was, how can we do this in a way that it isn’t just throwing money at it haphazardly, but is more focused on what really works and is a little bit more efficient.”

Wielechowski said there’s bipartisan interest. 

“Nobody wants that revolving door where people get out of jail and 66 percent go back within one or two years,” he said. “Nobody wants that. The public doesn’t want that. The Legislature doesn’t want that. The governor doesn’t want that.”

The Legislature also has asked the task force to make recommendations in standardizing how Alaskans are screened for the courts, as well as how to provide culturally appropriate treatment resources, including Alaska Native treatment providers. The task force is scheduled to make the recommendations before the next Legislature convenes in January. 

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