EVERETT — In his nearly two decades on the bench, Marysville Municipal Court Judge Fred Gillings says one challenge has stood above the rest:
“What to do with the drug issue in our community and how best to address it.”
Drug use in Snohomish County remains astonishingly high, with hundreds of fatal overdoses every year from heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and other drugs. Meanwhile, more drug-related cases are landing in municipal courts after the Legislature reclassified drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor following a state Supreme Court ruling last year, Gillings said.
To help address the crisis, Everett and Marysville plan a new program to get residents facing misdemeanor charges into drug treatment as an alternative to criminal proceedings. City councils in both cities approved agreements to potentially get the project up and running in municipal courts in coming weeks.
Misdemeanor cases in Lake Stevens will also fall under the program because those charges are filed in the Marysville court.
Snohomish County Superior Court already has an intensive drug court, offering people addicted to drugs a chance to get clean and avoid having felonies tarnish their records when they are charged with non-violent crimes.
In the existing system for misdemeanor cases, it can take a long time for defendants to get help, Gillings said.
A judge can order drug evaluations and treatment only after someone pleads guilty or is convicted. That could take a year after someone is charged. Without an incentive to accept help, they’re likely to reoffend, the judge argued, so the problem remains unsolved.
Under this new program, people charged in the Everett and Marysville courts can voluntarily meet with a liaison from Bridgeways, an Everett-based nonprofit, at their first court appearance.
If treatment is recommended, Bridgeways can get them help quickly for detox and outpatient treatment.
“This pilot project is trying to offer those services immediately,” Gillings said. “… They don’t have to go somewhere. They don’t have to pay money. They don’t have to go obtain a copy of their police report. They don’t have to jump through the hoops that, in the past, would derail them or prevent them from being successful.”
But it’s not just about drug treatment, said Michael Campbell-Danas, marketing and development manager for Bridgeways. It’s also about helping people get housing, employment and other aid they need.
In exchange for participating in the program, prosecutors could weaken charges against the defendants or drop them entirely. The participants will likely be facing charges stemming from drug-related offenses.
“It’s an alternative to going to jail, so they can hopefully get their treatment and not have to go to jail as a repercussion if they were found guilty of a charge,” said Sharon Whittaker, administrator at the Everett Municipal Court.
A state grant worth over $300,000 will cover the pilot program through June 2023. The courts hope to get more funding to continue it in the following years.
The program would be similar to an existing one available for Everett defendants needing mental health assistance. As of October, that program had served 72 participants — 46 of whom graduated, Everett Municipal Court Judge Laura Van Slyck said in an email. Those 46 have seen a drastic drop in recidivism.
Typically, participants spend 18 months getting help through the mental health program. Campbell-Danas expects people in the new one to take less time.
The goals of the program are both short- and long-term, Van Slyck said.
In the short term, residents can begin to get a grip on their addiction.
And in the long term, they can be better prepared for broader success, for example with a job or vocational classes. This can be a boon both for the person as well as their families and the general community.
Gillings sees the approach as a more compassionate way to chip away at the drug crisis.
“As a society,” he said, “if we’re going to try to come up with a solution for this, you have to offer people the opportunity to help themselves with treatment.”