By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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“It's like I'm born again,” he said.
“Now, I'm not afraid to live this life.”
Najera, a 46-year-old general contractor from Sequim, has been sober since July 27, 2012.
He credits Clallam County Drug Court for helping him arrest an addiction that he has battled since the age of 21.
“My life has totally and completely changed,” he said.
Najera is one of 257 adults who have completed the rigorous requirements of Clallam County Drug Court, a diversion program that gives nonviolent non-sex offenders a chance to have their original charges dropped if they get sober.
Since the adult program began in Clallam County Superior Court in October 1999, 85 percent of those who have graduated from Drug Court have not been convicted of a new felony, according to a recent study conducted by Drug Court Coordinator Stormy Howell.
Eighty-seven percent of those who graduated from 2000 to 2004 have steered clear of a felony in the past decade.
“That shows there's been a long-term effect on people,” said Superior Court Judge George L. Wood, who presides over Adult Drug Court and requested the recidivism analysis.
Howell's study further revealed that 67 percent of Adult Drug Court graduates had no further criminal convictions whatsoever, felony or misdemeanor.
The post-Drug Court success rate climbs to 71 percent if one excludes third-degree driving with a suspended license.
Wood described the statistics as “pretty astounding.”
“I was surprised by how good it was,” he said.
Howell said she was “pleasantly surprised,” by the data she compiled.
“I expected it to be high, but when the actual numbers came down, I was very pleased with what they were,” she said.
More recently, only two of the 42 Adult Drug Court graduates since August 2012 have a new felony or misdemeanor conviction, Howell said.
Nationwide, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free two years after graduation, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Drug Court was introduced in Clallam County by former Superior Court Judge Ken Williams, who led a local campaign to secure a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to form a juvenile drug court in 1997.
At that time, Clallam County had the only juvenile drug court in the Pacific Northwest. It was the 12th in the nation and the second in a rural county.
The Clallam County Drug Court program became a regional model under Howell's predecessor, Preston Kayes.
The Jefferson County Drug Court was started in 2003 by Thomas Majhan, former Superior Court judge, and Juelie Dalzell, former prosecuting attorney.
Although Kayes and Williams retired at the end of 2012, the Clallam County Drug Court program is as robust as it's ever been, with about twice as many new participants this year — 34 — than the five-year rolling average.
“We have a pretty full court right now,” Howell said.
The Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney's Office refers defendants to the diversion program.
This year, Prosecuting Attorney William Payne began sending people to Drug Court earlier in the process and “opened it up to a few people that definitely need the services of the program that may not have been eligible previously,” Howell said.
Mark Nichols, Payne's opponent in this year's election, is also a strong supporter of Drug Court.
Most offenders who enter the program have a long-term history of felony activity associated with their drug use, Wood said.
Heroin and methamphetamine are the most common drugs of choice.
“What's fun about it is seeing somebody you've seen [in court] over the years, and he or she finally gets it in Drug Court,” Wood said.
“And then there's a marvelous transformation that takes place in their lives. It's fun to see, considering their history in the past.”
Defendant who agree to enter Drug Court surrender their right to a jury trial.
If they fail to follow through with inpatient or outpatient treatment, miss weekly court appearances or daily self-help meetings, fail to pay their fines or fail the random and frequent urinalysis tests, they go right back to Superior Court for a stipulated trial.
In a stipulated trial, a judge will simply review the police report and usually find the defendant guilty.
“They don't get a regular trial,” Wood said. “They don't get to call witnesses.”
But those who manage to graduate from Drug Court get a clean slate and a hope for a better future.
“I never was as happy as I am now,” said Najera, who spent six months in inpatient treatment after a DUI.
Najera was resistant to the idea of Drug Court at first but was encouraged by other defendants to stick with the program, Wood recalled.
“Everybody stood up and encouraged me,” Najera said.
“I'm so glad that I did it.”
Now that he has taken command of his addiction — he still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — Najera has found balance in his life and no longer needs to borrow money to get by.
“I don't ask for favors, because I can do this,” Najera said.
“I can do it on my own.”
Meanwhile, Drug Court saves taxpayers a “tremendous amount” in the cost of jury trials, court hearings and prison, Howell said.
“We have some people in Drug Court that are looking at some fairly substantial prison sentences,” she added.
By reducing recidivism, Wood said, “you also save the community the expense of crimes, houses being burglarized and so forth.”
Howell said there are three drug-free babies in Drug Court now and another on the way.
“That's pretty phenomenal,” she said.
Howell refuted the notion that people in Drug Court are bad people.
“They're not,” she said.
“Most of the people that we work with are really good people who have a really bad addiction.”
Part of the reason Wood asked for the analysis on Drug Court recidivism was to tackle the misconception that Drug Court doesn't work.
“It's working,” he said.
Wood also dispelled the idea that Drug Court defendants are being let off easy.
“It's not an easy program to get through,” he said.
Howell and other members of the Drug Court team — attorneys, judges and support staff — help defendants earn their General Educational Development, or GED, certificates, as well as find jobs and get their driver's license reinstated.
But for Howell, the best part of Drug Court is graduation day, when friends, family and even the arresting officer gather to celebrate a second chance at life.
“It's amazing,” Howell said.
“They're incredibly powerful days.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.