Different kind of court is a last chance before big trouble


(Video by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Nick Zywot’s mom stopped talking to him because of his drinking. After a decade of sobriety, police arrested him a few days after Christmas for DUI No. 6.

Jesse Powell notched his fourth DUI in September. Tia Smart went to court 10 times for underage drinking before her latest assault charge.

That was last year.

Today, these Alaskans share two things in common: All chose to battle their way through a special court program designed to help them stay sober. And all face jail time if they screw up.

Welcome to Wellness Court, an alternative to regular courtrooms that the Alaska Judicial Council and economics researchers say holds promise for cracking the cycle of Alaska inmates who can’t stay out of jail.

Created in 1999 with a single Anchorage court, the program has expanded to 11 courts across the state with more venues under consideration, said program coordinator Michelle Bartley.

Some courts are designed to help veterans or people who struggle with mental health problems. Others, like the Anchorage Wellness Court, focus on misdemeanor alcohol offenders who often have multiple DUIs on their rap sheet and face serious prison time if busted again.

Those who agree to the program — which can include mandatory use of anti-addiction medication, 12-step groups and intensive treatment — face up to a year in prison. Their lives are in pieces.

“You’ve lost your kids. You’ve lost friends. You’ve lost your husband. You’ve lost lots of personal relationships,” said District Court Judge David Wallace, who oversees the misdemeanor wellness court in Anchorage. “This is your last opportunity.”

Another wellness court focuses on people accused of felonies. Over the past year, 521 people have participated in the “problem-solving” or therapeutic programs.

A 2012 state study published by the Alaska Judicial Council and the Institute of Social and Economic Research found that those who do graduate are at least 30 percent less likely to re-offend.

While specialty courts are relatively new to Alaska, the idea reaches back to the 1980s when drug cases began to overwhelm many U.S. courtrooms. By the end of the decade, frustrated judges suspected that prison time alone did little to stop addicts from committing new crimes upon release.

Drug treatment courts emerged in an effort to slow recidivism

In the late 1990s, the same approach was being applied to people who kept getting in trouble with the law because they won’t or can’t stop drinking.

It’s been hard to break the cycle of relapse, said Powell, who is 41. But things could be much worse.

“I don’t deal well with guilt of any kind. Knowing that I caused somebody harm or death, (I) probably couldn’t live with that,” he said.

Originally published June 28, 2014 by Marc Lester and Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage Daily News.