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Murrow College of Communication at WSU

For some offenders, “alternative” courts offer a path to sobriety

In the spring of 2020, Whitman County deputies booked Chastity Smith into jail for illegal drug possession, among other charges.

Smith, then 42, had a history of arrests in Washington state. After 20 days in the county jail, she posted bail and entered a treatment program through a unique community court operated by the county. Today, Smith credits the program with helping her overcome her addiction — and praises the work of Lorena Lynch, the drug court coordinator for Whitman County Superior Court.

“It’s super personable. I can email Lorena at any time. I can call her anytime with any questions or concerns,” Smith said. “She sends me birthday cards, and on my year of clean sobriety, she sent me a certificate. For Christmas she sent me candy. It’s just different.”

For more than a decade, the county has operated a drug court that requires attending court twice a week, weekly counseling sessions, and monthly urinary analysis tests. Earlier this year, the county expanded on the concept of alternative courts when it started one in its district court. Alternative courts are often referred to broadly as community courts, with large courts breaking theirs up into more specific focuses such as drug courts.

The Whitman County Superior Court started its drug court in 2011, offering a narrow range of offenders the chance to participate in it. The court is an option for some defendants who have been arrested for substance abuse. Lorena Lynch, the drug court coordinator for Whitman County Superior Court, said that although participants of the drug program that are successful have their charges dropped, it is by no means the easy way out.

Smith said that having already been clean from drugs for a year that the program helped her to stay accountable. Smith resides in Tacoma and has already been through King and Pierce County’s systems multiple times. But when now being in the drug court program in Whitman County, it stands out in how it is managed.

The ability of people in positions like Lynch’s to build personal relationships that make a serious impact on participants’ lives is not uncommon in Whitman county.
Mike Berney, the executive director of Palouse River Counseling, said that working with community courts in a rural area allows them to provide more time and care for program participants.

“The advantage for a rural area is it’s much harder for someone to fall through the cracks,” said Berney. “Once they’re identified, then we can follow them really closely. We know either they continued the program, or they’ve decided to drop out but typically people don’t just disappear.”

A shared belief among those that work on community courts is that participants must be committed to investing time and energy into the process. Participants in community court will be assigned to a probation counselor and will meet with them regularly to discuss their current situation and how they can work to improve it to ensure their future is better.

Dan Bassler, the senior probation counselor for Whitman County District Court, said that as a public service the court should be helping those in the community in need regardless of its cost.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we just did this because it was the right thing to do, rather than looking at the money?” said Bassler. “We see an obvious need and we owe it to the community to provide it when we could do it in a better way.”

John Hart, the Whitman County District Court judge, sees community court as a vessel for providing a place of rehabilitation for people that are ready to make a change in their lives. Hart said that he wants to take away the fear people have about the court system.

“[Community court] is just such a dynamic approach rather than a cookie cutter, linear approach to addressing people in our court,” said Hart.

“I use the word opportunity frequently,” said Hart. “Because really, that’s what we have every single day. All of us have an opportunity to go out and be productive and make a positive contribution to learn and grow.”

The Whitman County District’s Community Court began in February and is still too early in its formation to measure its success through data. But Hart said he’s focused on providing a space for people to feel safe in seeking mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment.

According to Hart, there are plans to expand the program to other types of offenses, going further than substance use. He remains cautiously optimistic that with continued state funding to the community court, they would be able to succeed in this goal. The court has received over half a million in state funding since its foundation this year.

“If we collectively were to save a life or just improve one measurably, that’s a dramatic success for me,” said Hart. “I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity to help people in need and it’s what most of us want to do.”



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