Vail Valley’s ‘court of last resort’ celebrates success, scholarships |

Vail Valley’s ‘court of last resort’ celebrates success, scholarships

Judge Katharine Sullivan started her problem-solving courts seven years ago.
Justin Q. McCarty |

To help

For information about Eagle’s Masonic Castle Lodge 122, or to contribute to the scholarship fund, go to, or call 970-328-6919.

By the numbers

It costs between $32,000 and $35,000 to keep someone in jail for a year in Eagle County.

Problem-solving courts cost $5,600 per person, per year.

Local problem-solving courts have a 75 percent graduation rate.

Source: Colorado’s Fifth Judicial District

EAGLE — A local civic group is extending its scholarship reach beyond traditional college to provide a lift for people turning their lives from addiction to action.

Five more people graduated Judge Katharine Sullivan’s problem-solving courts earlier this week, during National Drug Court Month.

The Masonic Lodge in Eagle is giving scholarships to some of those graduates to help them toward vocational and professional training.

Sullivan’s Masonic roots run deep. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Masons, as well as members of the bar in her native state of New York. They passed their Masonic apron down from generation to generation.

Addiction happens

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Addiction can happen to anyone. One of Sullivan’s previous graduates earned her master’s in international business and worked in Afghanistan.

At the other end of that spectrum, one of this week’s five graduates was too young to legally drink when she entered the program.

There are two doorways into Sullivan’s courtroom: the big wooden doors to the Justice Center hallway and freedom and the small metal door that leads to the jail.

Local defense attorney Taggart Howard has been a volunteer with the program for years. So has Deputy District Attorney Courtney Gilbert.

“I hope you do well, and I hope I never see you in a courtroom again,” Gilbert told this week’s graduates.

Of the 150-plus people who have completed Sullivan’s problem-solving court, only one has returned to jail for a long sentence, according to state judicial system records.

Alternative to incarceration

Sullivan launched Eagle County’s problem-solving courts in October 2009, after being a judge for more than a decade. She runs two problem-solving courts, one for alcohol and one for drugs, along with handling a full docket every day.

Problem-solving court is officially called Adult Intensive Supervision Probation, and it’s sort of the court of last resort for drug and alcohol offenders.

“If they weren’t here, they’d be in long-term incarceration,” Sullivan said.

It’s not for everyone. Violent criminals need not apply, and it’s not for first-time offenders.

Clients have lots of eyes on them as they learn life skills, such as how to write a resume and land a job. Work, Sullivan said, helps organize and prioritize your day and your life. It keeps them on the right track, she said.

It’s also a little like school. If you’re late, then you can get detention, except detention is across the hall at the Eagle County jail.

You miss a group meeting, then you go to jail.

You lie to the judge or her team, then you go to jail.

You’re caught drinking, then you go to jail. You have to put together 365 straight days of sobriety.

Some people can complete the program in a year, but you have up to two years.

The system works

There’s a system in place, and it works if you work it.

When people are new to the program, it’s not uncommon for them to miss a drug or alcohol test, or test positive. The rules are clear, and Sullivan usually gives them a couple of days in jail to reconsider their life choices.

“Just because she loves you doesn’t mean she won’t throw you in jail. She will,” said John, one of this week’s five graduates.

For example, Jan had missed a couple of alcohol tests, but is feeling so much better since alcohol is no longer her breakfast drink.

“For the past two years I’ve been so … so …”

“Drunk?” Judge Sullivan said, finishing Jan’s sentence.

“Yeah! Drunk!”

Jan missed an alcohol test last week and is headed back to jail for a couple of days.

Terry missed a couple of scheduled alcohol tests, too. She had very good excuses, but not good enough. She’ll also spend a couple of days in jail.

Sullivan invited them to stick around for graduation before they took that long walk across the Justice Center hallway to the jail. They both did. Neither was in a hurry to be back behind bars.

Jenn is the youngest of this week’s five graduates. She was in the program before she was old enough to drink. Hard drugs followed close behind, along with other unfortunate choices.

“As hard as this program is, I’m so grateful for it,” Jenn said.

One guy was in the middle of the program when life made him a single father. He coped with it all, he said, because of the skills he learned during the program. He doffed his Chicago Cubs baseball cap with the admonition, “Go Cubbies,” and did not have a celebratory beer when the Cubs ended 108 years of frustration.

Change your own life

Sullivan can be a force of nature, and like all such forces, you’d better be prepared to meet it. People in the program meet with Sullivan in open court once a week, filing to the podium one at a time as she smiles at them from behind her bench.

“Tell me something good, something recovery-related,” she tells them.

Rich graduated this week. He changed his life, and that’s the thing, he said. You have to change your own life. No one can do it for you.

“As long as you’re willing to change, there’s always an opportunity,” he said. “I’ve always had to learn everything the hard way. It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

Rich wasn’t ordered into the program; he volunteered. He calls himself a “blackout drunk.” He couldn’t remember what he had done or said.

“I spent way too much time apologizing,” Rich said.

“This is a really hard program,” Sullivan told the group.

That was met with knowing nods and a chorus of “Yes ma’am,” and “Uh-huh!”

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

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