Problem-solving court celebrates five years of helping people stay clean and sober

Judge Katherine Sullivan congratulates on earning his one year sober coin while attending an alternative senencing court hearing Wednesday in Eagle. The court celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Justin Q. McCarty |

Katharine Sullivan can be a force of nature, and like all such forces you’d better be prepared to meet it.

Eagle County Court Judge Sullivan and the problem-solving court program is five years old. Time flies when you’re having fun, and when you’re sober enough to focus on it.

Alternative to incarceration

It’s officially called Adult Intensive Supervision Probation, and it’s sort of the court’s last resort for drug and alcohol offenders. Every judicial district in Colorado has at least one. The country’s first one started 25 years ago.

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“This is where we are headed as a judiciary. It is an alternative to incarceration, which we know is expensive and the recidivism rate is high,” Sullivan said. “This takes creativity and innovation. Those aren’t things you normally think of when you think of the judicial system, but those are what we do here.”

It’s called alternative because it gives judges like Sullivan an option besides jail.

It costs less than $6,000 of taxpayer money to get someone through problem-solving court. It costs more than $25,000 a year to house a prisoner in a county jail.

“If this program did not exist, these people would be in long-term incarceration, and that comes back to our primary job — to protect our community,” Sullivan said.

Among the goals is to catch participants doing well.

“If you catch them doing something wrong, let us know that, too,” Sullivan said.

They get sanctions when they do something wrong. They get incentives when they do something right and get to spin the big wheel where they can win presents, gift cards, inspirational stuff and time off their public service.

“We can always use things for the wheel,” Sullivan said.

Face time with the judge

Before she was a judge, Sullivan did drug and alcohol interventions all over the country. “High dollar rehab,” she calls them. On drug court day, her team spends all day preparing for the afternoon session.

Each client gets a few minutes of face time with Sullivan as she asks them to tell her something good in their lives from that week. Almost everyone has something.

At last week’s fifth anniversary celebration, two participants — Ashby and Mark — talked about how the program helped pull them back from the abyss.

“I have been humbled two times over whether to take someone or not. Ashby is one of those,” Sullivan said.

Capito graduated from the program nine months ago and has been sober two and a half years. She was facing her sixth DUI when she was accepted to the program.

“This is the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said.

She had failed at in-patient programs and everything else, saying they didn’t help her build the tools she needed to make a change.

“I knew I needed that structure, but it was hard, it was really hard,” Capito said. “When I got here, I had given up on life.”

Jail got her attention and gave her time to rethink her life choices.

“Now I’m sober Ashby. I’m clean Ashby. I love this person and I’m not sure I would have been able to find her without this program,” she said.

Mark got his first DUI at 15, and all kinds of other alcohol-related crimes. He’d been on probation numerous times and spent time in several county jails and was facing a two-year prison sentence.

The alternative court was not the path of least resistance, he said.

“There were times I wished I had taken the two-year sentence because it would have been easier,” he said. “But it kept me so busy I didn’t have time to think about drinking.”

He said he likes sober Mark.

“I learned I’m not prefect, but perfection would limit me. Imperfection gives me the freedom of a million potentials,” he said.

The starting lineup

The court’s first docket was called in October 2009 with four participants and three people on the team: Sullivan, Kenny Hamburg with Alpine Counseling, and probation officer Karen Hoeger, now the problem-solving court coordinator for the Fifth Judicial District (Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties).

“Some programs try to get clients to think their way to a better way of living. This one helps them live their way to a better way of thinking,” Hamburg said.

Court is an adversarial system, with lawyers on opposite sides and a judge in the middle.

“I’m no longer up there by myself. I have a team,” Sullivan said.

They’re still in touch with those original four, Hoeger said, and they’re part of a growing list of success stories.

One has 1,033 days of sobriety. Another is five years clean and sober.

None have committed new crimes, Hoeger said.

“It was easy for me to see judge Sullivan had a passion to help recovering addicts and alcoholics,” Hoeger said. “She wanted to stop the revolving door of her courtroom.

“I want to make it so you never have to walk through those courtroom doors again,” Sullivan said.

The treatment team since has grown to include representatives of the District Attorney’s Office; Taggart Howard of the Causey & Howard Law Firm to represent defense counsel; the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office; and psychotherapist Marny Nedlin, Ph.D. The court’s capacity also has grown, prompting the division in February 2013 into separate DUI and Drug courts.

“I feel so grateful that I have the privilege to work in Eagle County,” Sullivan said. “I love being here. It truly is a privilege. I love this team and each and every one of my participants.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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