For some, Anchorage Wellness Court offers a road to redemption

More than a decade ago, a DUI charge left Doreen Schenkenberger with two options. She could face months in jail — and be separated from her kids, 6 and 8 at the time — or she could enter the Anchorage Wellness Court.

“I was ready, I was ready to do something to change my life,” said Schenkenberger, who says she relapsed after years of sobriety when her husband and father-in-law were killed in a plane crash.

Anchorage Wellness Court, which takes people with misdemeanors, felony DUIs and felony drug charges, offers participants a way to get reduced or no jail time. It takes a year or more to complete and includes a strict schedule, full of random drug and alcohol testing, treatment and court appearances.

“I jumped at the opportunity to at least go and listen in at wellness court a couple times to see what it was all about,” said Schenkenberger, who now serves as the executive director at Partners for Progress, a nonprofit created to help reduce criminal recidivism.

Coming from five generations of family affected by alcohol misuse, Schenkenberger is familiar with how one person’s alcoholism can not only destroy that individual’s life but also hurt others, be it through violence, suicide or abuse.

“When you grow up with that, you think, ‘Oh, I’m never going to be like that,’” Schenkenberger said.

Both of her parents were alcoholics, she says, and her mom died from alcoholism. And, over time, she became dependent on alcohol too, notching five DUIs.

“So, the intervention was welcome,” Schenkenberger said. “I probably wouldn’t have stopped otherwise.”

How they started:

Therapeutic courts were born out of a desire to reduce recidivism rates and deflate ballooning prison populations. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to a 2013 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies. In Alaska, the prison population has grown so much that if unabated, will likely result in the need to construct a new multimillion-dollar facility in the near future.

Created in 1999, the Anchorage Wellness Court marked one of the first therapeutic courts in Alaska. In those days, it was only for alcohol-related misdemeanor cases, according to Michelle Bartley, Alaska’s therapeutic courts program coordinator.

In 2003 — around the time Schenkenberger entered the program — the state Legislature approved the establishment of felony DUI courts for Anchorage and Bethel.

Today, Anchorage’s municipal wellness court takes on participants with alcohol and drug problems who have been charged with misdemeanors. There’s also a felony drug court that recently started taking more cases, says Stacy Schamber, Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) therapeutic courts coordinator. Together, the municipal, felony drug and felony DUI courts make up what’s known as the Anchorage Wellness Court.

The mission has remained constant — break the cycle of criminal behavior while treating people with substance abuse issues.

Judges, probation officers, treatment providers and attorneys try to work in tandem to keep participants busy and out of a cell.

Anchorage Wellness Court graduate Catherine Adcock calls it “the hardest program that you could ever go through.”

Meeting the demands:

Participants are expected to attend court, where they have face time with a judge who will call them out in front of their peers if they are caught lying, miss a drug test or don’t turn in paperwork on time. Sanctions for screw-ups are progressive, wellness court staff say, and include everything from verbal warnings to increased supervision to jail time.

But participants also receive a judge’s praise for achieving goals, and their dialogue can be so intimate it almost feels like two relatives having a conversation. Common questions from judges: How are you doing? How are your kids? Is work going OK?

At court in February, Jennifer Lake — a felony drug court participant — was all smiles when she rattled off her progress to the judge, eliciting laughter from her peers with her anecdotes.

“You’re not a file — you’re a person,” said Lake of wellness court.

Court can get emotional. Watching her friends mess up and get jail time as punishment is never easy, said Lake, who has been in that position before. During her first part of the three-phase program, she was caught with spice and went to jail for almost a week.

Lately things have been better, stable, for her, the 31-year-old says.

“It’s because I don’t have those enablers in my life,” said Lake, adding that she wants to help others with substance abuse problems when she graduates wellness court.A high school dropout, Lake was pregnant at 15 and out of her mom’s home by 16. Her husband was charming at first, she says, but became abusive over the years.

Like Schenkenberger, Lake had several run-ins with the law before landing in wellness court.

In a recent case, on May 25, 2014, police found her sitting in a vehicle. Keys were in the ignition and the car was off, court documents say.

Authorities watched her sway when she exited the vehicle, and she reached for the door handle but missed it. Lake ended up testing positive for Benzodiazepine, the charges say. It’s the same drug her mother used to kill herself, she says.

But Lake isn’t interested in repeating history. She shows up to the court’s required meetings. She participates in discussions. She takes her recovery seriously, she says.

“I never was late. I never missed a group. I just was always there,” she said. “I knew that what it took for me to have a healthy recovery was to show up.”

Jennifer Lake, 31, had multiple run-ins with the law before entering the Anchorage Wellness Court. Jason Sear / KTVA

Jennifer Lake, 31, had multiple run-ins with the law before entering the Anchorage Wellness Court. Photo: Jason Sear / KTVA

Uneven incentives:

Lake is among a growing number of wellness court participants who want to overcome drug abuse. Although they’re the hardest ones to get in the program, the drug offenders have the most to gain, Schamber says.

Wellness court participants with felony drug charges have the potential for a clean slate — an opportunity to have their cases dismissed when they graduate.

Felony DUI offenders, however, don’t have the option of dropped charges. Some will never get their driver’s license back.

A lot of Anchorage Wellness Court graduates who are charged again are people who can’t legally drive because their licenses have been revoked, says Schamber, citing a recently completed annual report.

“Because it’s just so hard to get around — if you have a job and kids — on the bus,” Schamber said. “So they get caught [driving] and they get in trouble.”

For DUI offenders in the misdemeanor court, it could take them longer to get their license back than if they had taken a different treatment route like ASAP.

“So, they’re actually getting a penalty in one sense by doing the program in terms of getting their license back,” Schamber said.

Measuring success:

Data gathered by the Alaska Judicial Council and the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) suggests therapeutic courts — and the rigid schedule they demand — can be beneficial, particularly for people facing felony charges.

Reduced recidivism rates are one measure of success. Even those who started the felony courts and didn’t finish had lower recidivism rates than their comparison offenders.

For misdemeanants, success depends on whether or not the person graduates. Rearrest and reconviction rates were about one-third lower for graduates compared to people not participating in therapeutic courts, according to the report. However, non-graduate misdemeanants had higher rearrest and reconviction rates than the comparison offenders.

The state covers most of the costs associated with Alaska’s therapeutic courts, says Doug Wooliver, deputy administrative director for the Alaska Court System.

And, in general, lawmakers have been supportive of them as the Legislature looks for cost-effective ways to reduce recidivism rates, he says.

With so many variables surrounding the cost of someone being incarcerated versus going through therapeutic courts, it’s hard to pin down numbers on how much cheaper the therapeutic option is.

“In general, it costs a lot less to not be in jail,” Wooliver said. “Every time you get someone out of that cycle you save money in the future.”

The current annual budget of the Anchorage Wellness Court is about $1.2 million, according to data provided by Bartley in mid-January. This money covers treatment, supervision and legal and administrative support service expenses.

Meanwhile, it cost the state about $159 a day to house an inmate at the Anchorage Correctional Complex in fiscal year 2014, according to a state report. That comes out to about $58,000 per inmate a year, meaning that the Anchorage Wellness Court’s current budget is equal to the cost of housing roughly 21 inmates for a year.

Budget cuts have been a theme at the state Capitol, but “at least this year, our therapeutic court funding is in pretty good shape,” Wooliver said in a recent phone conversation.

Moving forward:

Schenkenberger felt the ripple effects of alcoholism in her family for years. These days, she says her sobriety has a positive impact on those around her, including her children.

“Being in recovery and being sober has helped me be supportive and be a good mother to my kids,” she said.

Her son graduated from a technical school in Seward last year and he recently landed a job with Bering Straits Native Corporation. Her daughter is in college in Hawaii.

“I don’t think that would be the case if I was still drinking,” Schenkenberger said. “I know it wouldn’t.”

When she used to go out, she says she remembers seeing an older man panhandling on the corner of Fourth Avenue. Sometimes, he would be passed out on the sidewalk, she said.

The man she recalls seeing on the street so many nights eventually ended up in wellness court himself. And graduated.

“Right before I went into wellness court, I went and watched a few times and I saw what he was doing with no help whatsoever. Just really doing it on his own,” Schenkenberger said. “And I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Hope Miller and Jason Sear received Alaska Press Club data journalism fellowships, which helped them produce this story. The training program was funded by the Alaska Community Foundation and Recover Alaska.

Originally published April 23, 2015 by Hope Miller in KTVA.