Alternative court offers support, seeks solutions to crime

EVERETT — The judge ordered the woman to write an essay about how her crimes affect the community. Two other women were told they likely will be kicked out of the program for not obeying the rules.

For more than an hour Everett Municipal Court Judge Laura Van Slyck checked in with about 15 defendants participating in the city’s Community Justice Alternatives Program.

She asked about their medications and reminded some that they needed to work on getting a job or finding more stable housing. The majority of the participants in the year-old program are living with mental illness.

Van Slyck chastised one man for showing up late. Another man, who’s been in the program for two months, was complimented for his progress. His goal, he said, is to take a class at Everett Community College.

“He’s doing a great job. He’s really a model,” city prosecutor Hil Kaman said.

The city’s therapeutic court is offered to people facing non-felony criminal charges in Everett Municipal Court, such as trespassing or shoplifting.

Participants must regularly attend court hearings and abide by various conditions, such as attending counseling sessions or meeting with the court’s liaison, a mental health professional from Bridgeways. Participants may be required to undergo drug screening or find housing.

“We’re holding people accountable,” Van Slyck said before the session held last month. “We also have the opportunity through the program to look at the underlying issues, whether it’s mental illness or chemical dependency or both — whatever it is feeding into the criminal behavior.”

Van Slyck took over the program after Judge David Mitchell retired in 2013.

Participants have the opportunity to have their charges dismissed but it isn’t an easy road for some. They are required to attend court hearings once every two weeks for the first two months. They attend fewer court hearings as they progress.

They must have regular contact with the public defender and court’s liaison and not have any new arrests. The judge gets progress reports and can impose sanctions if the rules aren’t being followed. To move ahead in the program, they must comply with the plans developed for them, which may include finding a job or enrolling in classes. The goal is to have them graduated in a year. It takes longer for some.

“I think it’s a very humanizing process,” public defender Laura Baird said. “We can have conversations and get at some of the root causes of why they’re engaging in criminal activity.”

Participants include first-time offenders and people who have been rotating in and out of the criminal justice system for years. People accused of drunken driving are not allowed in the program.

One man, who has been in the program just over a year, came to court last month with a journal. He is required to document his days and behavior in hopes of keeping him out of jail. Van Slyck complimented him for continuing to follow the rules.

The man is working to break a cycle of revolving in and out of trouble.

“This is the longest you’ve gone without a new charge in a very long time,” the judge said.

It’s been almost a year since the man faced any new criminal charges.

“He’s being held responsible for his behavior,” Kaman said. He’s also getting the support he needs to stay crime-free.

Most of the participants need assistance securing suitable housing and mental health treatment. The program relies on the treatment providers in the community, such as Compass Health and Evergreen Manor to work with the participants. The court doesn’t diagnose participants or development treatment plans but they can coordinate with counselors to hold people accountable. There are good resources out there, the judge said.

“It’s a matter of connecting them to what’s available,” Van Slyck said.

That’s where Cathy Wheatcroft comes in. She works for Bridgeways, a nonprofit that assists people living with mental illness find resources. Snohomish County helped the city secure the position through North Sound Mental Health Administration, which oversees the funding for community mental health resources.

Wheatcroft, who is new to the position, can work with participants between the court hearings, helping them navigate the system. That helps keep people from slipping through the cracks.

So far three people have graduated from the program. The city continues to collect data to determine if the court is reducing recidivism and helping people long term.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; Twitter: @dianahefley

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