Eagle County problem-solving courts offer new hope to repeat offenders battling substance abuse
RISE Court and Recovery Court have the potential for ‘fundamental change,’ judge says
National research into the mental health implications of substance use disorder has caused many courthouses, including those in Eagle County, to think critically about how addiction might breed criminal activity that otherwise would not occur.
The war on drugs led by the United States government brought a backlog of drug offense cases in the 80s and 90s, prompting a search for other avenues to address these offenses as jail populations swelled in many parts of the country.
One model that has proven to be successful is that of “problem-solving courts” that focus on substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation as a method of reducing recidivism.
“Often times our justice system is not necessarily based on rehabilitation and programs like these are based definitely more on rehabilitation than punishment,” said Amy Padden, a deputy district attorney for the 5th Judicial District. “And I think that’s appropriate especially when we’re dealing with substance abuse problems or mental health problems. If we can address whatever is causing the criminal behavior, then we’re going to have much better long-term success with these individuals. They’re going to be far less likely to recidivate or turn back to their criminal ways.”
Eagle County offers two of these “problem-solving courts” – RISE (Recover Invest Succeed Excel) Court, which focuses on people with multiple charges for driving under the influence, and the Recovery Court for other drug- or alcohol-related offenses, said Lisa Morton, the county’s problem-solving court coordinator.
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The county’s state-accredited RISE Court and Recovery Court began in 2009 as one court under the leadership of Eagle County Court Judge Katharine Sullivan, Morton said. It wasn’t until 2013 that the two were split into the programs that exist today.
Now, Judge Paul R. Dunkelman oversees the Recovery Court, previously known as “drug court,” and Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez runs RISE, previously the DUI Court.
A system that cares
For Dunkelman, who has been a 5th Judicial District Court Judge for eight years, the recovery court is an avenue for bringing about “fundamental change in the criminal justice system,” he said.
“When it works, you have somebody who didn’t lose his home or her home, didn’t lose the family, didn’t lose all the support, wasn’t taken out of the community and sent to prison,” Dunkelman said. “Putting somebody in prison for having an addiction as opposed to treating the addiction is just a poor way to handle what is a common problem in the valley, and that’s drug and alcohol addiction. It’s unproductive and it’s not cost-efficient.”
Someone becomes a participant in one of the courts if they meet a specific, standardized set of eligibility criteria, Morton said. Once they are recommended for the alternate tract, a committee of representatives from all areas of the criminal justice system reviews their case more closely and votes to admit them, she said.
“We’re looking for high-risk, high-need individuals, meaning high risk to re-offend and then high treatment need,” Morton said.
The courts are designed for repeat offenders who are teetering on the edge of serious prison time, but who authorities feel might need something different to turn their lives around.
Keith Carrieri, who had his first encounter with drugs at 8 years old and was in and out of the criminal justice system from the age of 13, fit this description.
Carrieri said he never thought he had a drug problem until much later in life, after he had dabbled in most every illegal drug this small-town community had to offer him and racked up a slew of misdemeanor and felony charges.
He learned to navigate the court system from a young age, putting down whatever he was using for six or eight months as he fulfilled probation for various charges, showing up for appearances and drug tests, and then going right back to business as usual.
“Going to jail every month or every couple months wasn’t enough to wake me up … it was just like, alright, what do I have to do this time?,” Carrieri said. “I knew how to get around every little corner that I needed to and kind of sneak my way through, but I would never see, until I got smacked straight in the forehead, that I had a problem. I just saw that I had to jump through this hoop, I have to stop for a little bit and as soon as Aug. 1 or whatever hits, I’m going to be back on it.”
Carrieri was facing assault and felony menacing charges in the fall of 2016. He was in jail and on his way to an 18-month prison sentence when he was admitted into recovery court, then known as drug court.
While much of this time in his life is quite foggy, he remembers the date of that arrest, Nov. 20, 2016, as it marks the anniversary of when he got clean, Carrieri said. He began the recovery court process four months sober, after he left jail and spent a stint at a Florida drug rehabilitation facility.
He knew the recovery court program would be intense and time-consuming and had even debated taking “the easy way out” via incarceration, but the thought of an 18-month stay in the Colorado Department of Corrections was not a pleasant one, he said.
Carrieri soon realized that Judge Sullivan, who holds legendary status when it comes to the two local problem-solving courts, did not mess around. But surprisingly, that was perhaps the most motivating part of the program, he said.
Today, he is nearly five years sober, and he attributes much of that to the Recovery Court and to Sullivan.
“I don’t think it ever would have happened if I didn’t have someone to say, ‘this is laid out in front of you and we’re going to help you,'” he said. “Having somebody that I felt like they cared was really huge too. Judge Sullivan really cared about us, and you could tell that.”
More carrots than sticks
The problem-solving courts are a lot of work, but they are also often the first time that offenders are able to have positive interactions with law enforcement, Dunkelman said.
“Early on in the program, it seems overwhelming and too much as they become stabilized and see that they can do this,” Dunkelman said. “The end of the program is usually a thank you to the team for having belief in them when everybody else had given up belief in them.”
The peer support participants get from going through the program alongside other local offenders working through similar struggles is crucial, said Daniel Steinhauser, the deputy district attorney assigned to the RISE Court.
Finding a community of support was life-changing for Carrieri, but he said he found this peer support more strongly within his Alcoholics Anonymous or AA group, the kind of 12-step program mandated by the RISE and Recovery Courts.
The courts are governed by this “multidisciplinary” committee and local treatment providers — Alpine Springs Counseling and Mind Springs Health.
Participants are kept on track using a litany of “sanctions” and “incentives,” fancy terms for carrots and sticks.
A sanction or punishment might be imposed if someone fails a drug test or misses a session, and can be scaled up from additional community service hours to a night in jail to being kicked out of the program entirely, which Steinhauser said rarely happens.
“Sometimes the judicial system in the core system can be pretty slow moving unfortunately, and so in this program, they’re there in front of the judge every couple weeks,” Morton said. “So, there’s this really swift response to behavior both negative and positive.”
The courts try to use more carrots than sticks, Steinhauser said. Rewards might include a reduction in community service hours or a chance to spin a wheel with prizes like gift baskets and Walmart or gas station gift cards.
“A sanction is to really show them that this needs to be a priority, and that this is important,” he said. “But you also have to understand that part of recovery, part of treatment, is there’s going to be slip-ups, there’s going to be relapses and you can’t address it with such a heavy hand.”
“They’re working on changes that sometimes they’ve been doing these negative things for a long time and sometimes since they were kids, sometimes it’s multi-generational,” Morton said. “This is substance use disorder, so it’s a very difficult disease that they’re dealing with.”
We don’t often consider substance abuse to be a disease requiring patience and consistent treatment, but that kind of response has proven to be extremely effective, she said.
Beyond substance abuse treatment, participants are also screened and offered treatment for “any mental health concerns, trauma PTSD, traumatic brain injuries,” Morton said.
“I think a big part of people that are struggling with drugs and alcohol and mental health is they don’t know where to find help. They don’t know who to talk to,” Carrieri said. “It’s not a very healthy environment when you’re deep in addiction … you don’t necessarily think anything’s wrong.”
These programs have become even more important as DUI charges are up 200% this year, which authorities believe to be at least partially attributed to the release from being “cooped up” last year in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steinhauser said. The pandemic also brought spikes in substance abuse across the county, state, and country.
According to 2020 statistics presented by the Eagle County Justice Center, 93.5% of participants in the Recovery Court achieved sobriety as did 94.3% of RISE Court participants.
Of RISE Court graduates, 85% did not commit another crime in the five years post-graduation. This stat was 83% for the Recovery Court.
“It’s actually been, to me, pretty inspirational because what the participants are doing is really hard,” Padden said.
Padden recalled the recent graduation of a young woman from the Eagle County Recovery Court, someone who she had gotten to know during her journey to sobriety. She recalled feeling immensely proud of what the woman had accomplished in completing the program, and the struggles she overcame along the way.
“I told her this then, I was like, ‘As a prosecutor, it’s easy for me to become jaded and be like, you know, well this person says they are going to change but is it really going to happen?'” Padden said. “And here is this young woman, she was probably in her early 20s, who has really overcome all these obstacles and beat a serious addiction and really turned her life around.”
In this way, problem-solving courts also have the potential, if executed correctly, to lessen the divide between law enforcement officials and those on the other side of the podium, allowing offenders to feel seen for who they truly are and who they might become.
“I feel like this program, these problem-solving courts, really get the opportunity to dig in and see the human side and build those connections which otherwise wouldn’t happen,” Steinhauser said.
“Allowing somebody that’s going through that to feel like they are included, and they are worthy, and they do have that sliver of hope,” Carrieri said. “They’re not destined to the court system; they’re not destined to their relationship or their job … there can be more.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org