Fairbanks therapeutic courts focus on addiction treatment, not criminal punishment

Raul Calvillo (far right) shows news reporters around the Rabinowitz Courthouse. (Robyne/KUAC)

Inside Alaska’s court system there are therapeutic courts for handling crimes where alcohol and drugs play a significant part. Fairbanks’ DUI and drug courts started in 2007 with the idea that people could change their behavior toward alcohol and drugs and not repeat their crimes. The idea has been working.

Superior Court Judge Brent Bennett oversees a caseload of about 30 people in two therapeutic courts in Fairbanks where people convicted of drug and alcohol-related crimes work on overcoming addiction in an 18-month long program instead of going to jail.

“A big part of why I’m interested in working with the therapeutic courts is, we’ve tried this system of criminal justice, and people just keep coming back,” he said.

The recidivism rate for people convicted of drug and alcohol crimes and sent to jail is normally about 50%. The model for the Fairbanks Wellness Court focuses on addiction treatment rather than criminal punishment.

“This is an opportunity to try something different that helps folks rehabilitate, in a way that they are not going to recidivate, which benefits them, benefits their families, but also benefits the community,” Bennett said.

Bennet works with Amy Bollaert, a project coordinator for Fairbanks’ wellness courts. She says that since the DUI court and the drug court launched in Fairbanks, 156 people have graduated from the program. Very few have committed crimes again.

“Just solely based on Fairbanks, our recidivism usually averages between 5% to 7%,” she said.

Over a year to 18 months, the program requires participants to confront their substance abuse. They must provide random urine analysis, get jobs and proceed through drug and alcohol counseling. The Fairbanks therapeutic courts contract with Pacific Rim Counseling for intensive outpatient treatment.

But, as Bollaert says, some people need more than that, and there is regularly a shortage of inpatient treatment available in Fairbanks, and it is hard to get in to most treatment programs — inpatient or outpatient.

“The waitlist. That’s another barrier that we have,” she said.

Bennet says the therapeutic court is working on wraparound services with The Bridge, a local reentry program, and it is easy to find support among peers.

​“We also have an incredible amount of recovery meetings that are available. A broad gamut of recovery meetings, that aren’t necessarily religious-based. And those are available online at this point as well,” Bennett said.

Alaska has fourteen therapeutic courts statewide. Eight are for cases in which there is a clear link between crimes committed and addiction, three work primarily with defendants with mental health issues, two work with families in cases involving children and Anchorage has a veterans court.

Fairbanks, too, is working on launching a veterans court that could cater to the special mental health needs of the area’s huge veterans population. And the state is looking to collaborate with Tanana Chiefs Conference to set up a healing court.

But those projects are still in the planning stages. Bennett says in addition to preventing repeat crime, the program is life-changing.

“By and large everyone who’s finishing this program, can tell you at the end, ‘I’m doing this for me now, ‘I’m doing this because it feels good to be sober, it feels good to be somebody that can be relied upon, it feels good to be responsible,’” Bennett said.

KUAC - Fairbanks

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