PALMER — Most people don’t think of a courtroom when they start talking about graduations. Most people who have been to a normal court session and happened into a therapeutic court session would probably be surprised to hear clapping.
Inside a Palmer courtroom on July 19, Judge Kari Kristiansen was speaking softly and warmly. Even the prosecution spoke genially. This is not like your average, adversarial court session. It seemed more like a therapy check in. This was a graduation for the first person to complete the Palmer Wellness Court.
“Well, I encourage you to try and see if you can keep a good attitude. You’re looking good,” Kristiansen said to one participant as they were wrapping up his update.
Each participates in the program stood at the podium to check in, with the defense and prosecution on either side. After each update, Kristiansen ask how many days they were sober. No matter the number, big or small, there was a “good job” and roomful of applause.
“That’s a reason to celebrate,” Kristiansen said.
Some of the people in the program were still in the custody sitting to the left with their attorneys while the rest sat on the benches. They too, seemed more at ease compared to their time in a more conventional criminal case, laughing with the room on occasion.
“The transformation is incredible and these guys work so hard!” Palmer Coordinated Resources Project and Palmer Wellness Court project coordinator Kristin Hull said.
Mary McLinn was the first person to graduate from the Palmer program.
“You are the first graduate that started in our program. You’re our first Palmer graduate,” Kristiansen said.
The defense, prosecution, judge and several other lawyers in the room took turns congratulating McLinn. She grinned and her eyes started welling. Someone handed her a tissue. McLinn’s probation ended that day, after the state moved to revoke it.
“It’s kind of shocking, the change that I saw in Mary,” Assistant District Attorney, Shawn Traini said.
The PWC is the most recent addition 14 therapeutic courts across the state. The PWC is designed to support felony defendants with a desire to overcome substance abuse. The goal is to break the “revolving door” effect by going to the root of the repeated offenses.
The 12- to 18-month intensive program addresses each person’s unique situation and individual goals. They are required to provide random urine analysis each week and have to complete various steps like completing drug and alcohol counseling and getting jobs. The idea is to reinforce good habits and while address the old, bad ones while they learn how to acclimate into society and gain their independence.
In addition to dealing with substance abuse, those in PWC and other therapeutic courts often have their charges reduced or even dropped entirely. To some, therapeutic court might seem like the “easy way out” compared to doing time the conventional way, but according to Anchorage District Attorney, Rick Allen, it’s definitely not, in fact it’s more challenging because they are “under a microscope” and punished to make lasting change instead of just serving their time.
“People should understand, this is the hard route,” Allen said.
In addition to his day-to-day duties as the Anchorage DA, Allen also serves as the prosecution at the Anchorage Veteran’s Court.
“You make time; I do care about these veterans. I feel compelled to work hard for these folks,” Allen said.
The Mat-Su Valley is home to a plethora of veterans but they all have to make a trip to Anchorage if they want to utilize the Veteran’s Court. A recent example of this was when former Gov. Sarah Palin’s eldest son, Track Palin, went to Veteran’s Court after allegedly attacking his father, Todd. Track Palin was reportedly intoxicated during the incident. Allen said Veteran’s suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often self-medicate.
“The first step is to get them sober before they do a deep dive in the mental health,” Allen said.
Allen said he was happy to see the rise of therapeutic courts up here and the Lower 48. He noted that Alaska was the second state in country to establish a therapeutic court.
“Alaska was really on the front line with therapeutic courts,” Allen mused.
Sen. Shelley Hughes attended McLinn’s graduation. She sat with Kristiansen, Traini, Hull, Palmer Judge, Gregory Heath, and several public defenders and they all revelled at Mary’s success and the future of the PWC.
“Mary was a great example of that. She had a lot of time over her head but we never really had to get to that point because she was willing to do the steps,” Traini said.
Hughes said that the PWC seemed to “get to the heart of what SB-91 was trying to do. She said this program was a “no brainer.”
“There’s a time and place for punishment…There’s not a one-size-fits all,” Kristiansen said.
“I know that I fought really long for Wellness court, a really long time,” Hull said. “We provide, I think, more public safety than our regular prohibition.