Graduates walk in to applause and high fives during the last Adult Drug Court graduation, held March 8. Drug Court is being replaced with a Community Justice-based program that more specifically targets offenders’ needs to successfully stay out of prison. - Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune

A new approach

To the 11 celebrating a major milestone on their roads to recovery, the woman who’d first guided the Jackson County Adult Drug Court graduates into the rigorous program shared with them what she called the “starfish story.”

It was a parable April Murray shared at her first drug court graduation as coordinator more than 5-1/2 years ago, and one she now shared with the program’s very last, on March 8.

Murray told of a girl who sees a mass of starfish washed ashore. She starts “chucking them into the water, trying to save them.” A man tells her there are thousands of starfish. She can’t possibly make a difference.

“Well, I made a difference to that one,” the girl responds.

Leticia Aguilar was among the 11 grateful “starfish” who graduated March 8, and among 410 total graduates since 2006. Aguilar expressed profound gratitude to Murray for her hands-on efforts, to Jackson County Circuit Judge Kelly Ravassipour for mandating 12-step programs, and to others who also demanded sobriety and accountability from Aguilar, earning her the ability to get her cases dismissed.

“You brought me hope,” Aguilar said to the crowd assembled for the graduation. “I’m going to keep showing up for my life. That’s what responsible adults do.”

The ceremony marked the end of an era. Drug Court is being replaced by a new program through Jackson County Community Justice that will offer targeted intervention strategies to low-level offenders. The remaining two dozen participants who have yet to graduate will merge into Recovery Opportunity Court, a program for repeat offenders who’d previously served prison sentences.

After months of planning, Community Justice and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office began what they’re calling the “416 Program” April 1. Also known as a Downward Departure Prison Diversion Program, the new alternative to prison seeks to provide similar accountability from lower-level, repeat property crime offenders that Adult Drug Court served but with “a little different model,” according to Community Justice Director Eric Guyer.

The name “416” stems from a failed state Senate bill introduced in 2011 that proposed a structured supervision program for individuals sentenced to prison that was first piloted in Marion County, according to Guyer and state Legislature documents.

“The bill was defeated, but the moniker stuck,” Guyer said.

The new program will ensure offenders get frequent and positive relationships with authority — something at the core of drug court programs — but instead of with a judge, it’ll be with a hands-on probation officer with a smaller caseload than the typical P.O.

“Their relationship is going to be more with the probation department and the treatment provider,” Guyer said.

The new program is funded by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, the same agency that funds Recovery Opportunity and the former Adult Drug courts. Its primary goal: to reduce the number of inmates sent to prison.

Between 2015 and 2017 in Jackson County, 388 people were sent to prison for drug and/or property crimes, according to Guyer; 140 of them because they’d violated the terms of their probation.

“Our hope is through targeted intervention, we can decrease that number and treat people in the community,” Guyer said.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, who has been working with Community Justice on the new Downward Departure and Family Sentencing programs, said the hope is that providing a wider selection of programs will better set up drug and property crime offenders for successful rehabilitation. For some offenders, Recovery Opportunity Court will remain the right alternative program.

“Some people who don’t fit into drug court, they might be a good candidate for some enhanced supervision,” Heckert said.

Prosecutors make recommendations, but Heckert said Community Justice will take a closer look at a candidate’s individualized needs, such as addiction and mental health issues.

“As a prosecutor, we only know what’s in the police report,” Heckert said.

Toward that end, deputy district attorneys will route possible alternative-sentencing candidates to one individual at Community Justice for assessment, determining whether they’re right for any program, then where — be it Downward Departure, Family Sentencing or treatment court, according to Community Justice Program Manager Marie Curren.

In the new Downward Departure program, the placement officer works with the offender, prosecutors, drug and mental health treatment specialists and previous probation officers who may have had contact with the offender to outline specific goals before the offender pleads into the program.

Consequences for violations such as a missed check-in or a dirty urine test can vary, depending on the underlying issues, according to Curren.

For some, homework assignments on a host of topics, such as essays reflecting on the friends they’re keeping, may be in order.

Other scenarios may be better addressed through a mental health or drug treatment counselor, according to Curren, who described everyone working together “as a team.”

More serious violations, such as a new crime, will be taken before a judge. Penalties may include revocation of the offender’s probation.

The program also involves positive reinforcement rewarding good behavior, according to Curren, including verbal praise, Certificates of Success or other small rewards, such as a bus pass.

The new program has the capacity to serve up to 110 offenders in a number of individualized programs, said Curren, who was involved with writing a $426,956, two-year supplemental grant for it last summer.

One probation officer will serve between 30 and 50, another officer will serve between 50 and 60, and adding a third officer to the alternative sentencing program is a “possibility,” according to Curren. They’re starting with 13 referrals through the District Attorney’s Office in the “pipeline” for the new program.

Judge Ravassipour, who’s presided over the two treatment courts for the past year and a half, called the changes a “new beginning” rather than an end. Ravassipour said Drug Court dissolved largely because of a decrease in demand.

Last August, House Bill 2355 became law, downgrading to a misdemeanor certain drug-possession cases involving small amounts. Ravassipour said new applications virtually stopped for Drug Court, which required 12-step programs, drug treatment and repayment of fines, fees and restitution.

“The numbers really dropped,” Ravassipour said.

The CJC said it doesn’t have data to determine whether such drops in applications or participation are happening statewide. CJC data analyst Tiffany Quintero said in an email that “there are many ways to set up a drug court,” making apples-to-apples comparisons between counties difficult.

“Based on Oregon’s Best Practice Standards, it is recommended that the drug court participants be high-risk/high-need, but this can apply with any criminal charge — felony or misdemeanor,” Quintero wrote.

Eddie Wallace, spokesman for the newly renamed OnTrack Rogue Valley, confirmed the local drop. Prior to the law change, OnTrack Rogue Valley had roughly 100 participants each in Drug and Recovery Opportunity courts at any given time, he said. Participants in the newly merged program are “approximately half that amount.”

OnTrack, which piloted Jackson County’s treatment court programs from 2001 until Executive Director Rita Sullivan’s ouster in February 2017, had been the sole treatment provider used by the two courts since at least 2009.

The programs were among the ways Sullivan helped grow OnTrack to the largest provider of addiction recovery services, before her ouster by the board following a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from five current and former employees alleging a hostile work environment. The lawsuit, plus serious health and safety issues found at its facilities, caused OnTrack to lose control of state grants for drug and family courts to Jackson County last summer.

The agency still provides recovery services for the courts and is currently undergoing a rebranding effort, including a new logo that looks like train tracks heading upward.

For Anthony Valentine, one of the final graduates, Drug Court was a life changer. He celebrated more than 20 months clean and sober, his stable housing and relationship and his involvement in 12-step programs. He thanked Ravassipour, Murray and those in treatment because they “helped me save my life, and,” tapping his heart, “helped me find the one that matches here.”

“My life is more than I ever thought it could be,” Valentine said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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