Local ‘problem solving court’ grows into two programs | VailDaily.com

Local ‘problem solving court’ grows into two programs

Daily file photoJudge Katharine Sullivan listens to a client talk about being sober for the last nine months during drug and alcohol court at the Eagle County Justice Center in this file photo.

EAGLE, Colorado – An alternative to jailing drug and alcohol offenders is so successful that it has been doubled.

Judge Katharine Sullivan’s Adult Intensive Supervision Probation program one of Colorado’s most successful “problem solving” courts.

Colorado’s Fifth Judicial District received a federal grant that made it possible to split the program into two segments and hire Karen Hoeger as full-time problem solving court coordinator.

One segment is for repeat DUI offenders. They’re trying to avoid a year in jail. The other segment is felons with addictions that have them looking at state prison.

A probation officer is assigned to each segment.

Before this, Sullivan’s courtroom was packed with people most Wednesday afternoons, when they all get together with Sullivan.

“We’re busy,” said Bryan Lynch, who is the supervisor for the probation office and helps run Sullivan’s program.

Better than busy

Busy is good; good results are better.

Across the country, problem-solving courts see about half their graduates relapse. In Judge Sullivan’s program less than 30 percent do, Lynch said.

They run criminal histories on everyone who graduates for three years. People who graduate one of Sullivan’s problem-solving courts stay clear of trouble 87 percent of the time. People who spend a stretch in jail and prison tend to land back behind bars between 60 and 80 percent of the time, Lynch said.

It costs $35,000 a year to imprison someone in Colorado, Lynch said. Probation and these problem-solving courts cost about $1,500 a year per person.

“Not only is Judge Sullivan doing the community a great service, she’s saving the taxpayers a ton of money,” Lynch said.

These were the justice system’s frequent flyers, in and out of jail. Alcohol and drugs had them serving their life sentences a few weeks or months at a time.

“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 of thinking,” says Kenny Hamberg with Alpine Counseling, who helps run the program.

You can ask to be part of this program, or one of the judges can ask for you if they think it’ll help. You’ll do something recovery related seven days a week for at least a year, working through the program in phases. Each phase gives you a little more freedom.

It takes at least a year to finish the program. If it takes longer than two years, you’ll find yourself somewhere not nearly as pleasant as Sullivan’s courtroom.

When they’re done they have a graduation with cake and friends and family.

Their graduation speech consists of Sullivan proclaiming this welcome phrase: “You are officially off paper!” And with the stroke of her pen she liberates them from the justice system, signing an Order for Termination of Probation.

Your day in court

Before she was a judge, Sullivan ran 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.

Most have something. Some don’t. Cody was in the system for attempting to distribute a controlled substance. He relapsed, and that violates the integrity contract he signed. He’ll have a few days in the Eagle County Crossbar Hotel to consider his future.

Terry has been without a drink for nine months. He’s never gone a month before.

A few wear Transdermal Alcohol Detection bracelets that can indicate alcohol or drugs in their systems. It can get to be a crutch. Sullivan and her AISP team don’t like crutches.

Still, some need a little help avoiding trouble.

Jack asked the judge for permission to travel to the Caribbean for a vacation. Sullivan and her team decided that a trip built around excessive drinking might not be his best environment.

Life still happens to them.

Chris got sober then lost his job and his home, but says he managed to put all that back together because he wasn’t drunk and/or hung over.

“You don’t get a new car and a condo just because you’re sober,” Sullivan said.

When this latest class is “off paper,” Sullivan looks around at her graduates and extracts vows that they’ll keep in touch, as long as it’s not through her courtroom door for official reasons.

“I want to see you, but I never want you to be in court again.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism