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King County’s quietly successful program to combat addiction and change lives

Shelby Allen, who performs under the name GT500, entertains at the ceremony commemorating his graduation from the King County drug diversion court program. (Josh Kerns)

It’s not every day you hear applause in a courtroom, laughter, or even rap.

But things were very different Wednesday in one King County Courtroom, where dozens gathered to celebrate the latest graduates of King County’s groundbreaking drug diversion court.

It’s a day prosecutor Dan Satterberg always looks forward to.

“I’ve never been happier to dismiss a bunch of cases than I’m going to do right now,” Satterberg told the crowded courtroom.

“People sometimes think, for the prosecutor, you dismiss a case that means you lose, right? Not today. I think today we all win,” he said.

Satterberg has been a long-time advocate for the program. The idea is simple, but revolutionary. Rather than getting sent to prison or jail, a handful of felony offenders are given the chance to enroll in a rigorous diversion program. If they fulfill all the requirements, the charges against them are dropped.

Drug courts have been studied extensively and are now in use in over 2,500 jurisdictions nationwide. While it can cost upwards of $25,000 a year to keep a prisoner behind bars, the diversion program returns about $7 to taxpayers for every $1 invested, Satterberg said.

“More than just dollars we reclaim lives that were otherwise lost to drug addiction,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed as graduates shared their personal stories during the ceremony, many detailing reclamation of lost lives, families and jobs.

Alex Cotter was sleeping in an abandoned tow truck in Burien 19 months ago. He was homeless, hopeless, and hungry.

“I had no more fight left in me. I would have tried to keep going. I would have killed myself,” he said of the time he was arrested trying to shoplift food and sent to jail.

He could have spent a month or two in jail, then returned to the streets. Instead, he fought hard to gain acceptance into the program that offers everything from substance abuse treatment to housing and vocational training.

Now, 19 months later, Cotter has remained clean and sober with a roof over his head, food in the refrigerator and a good job working as a high-rise window washer.

“I don’t ever have to go back to jail ever again. I don’t ever have to wake up in a bush, or wake up withdrawing ever again. That’s amazing,” he said.

Most people spend between one and a half to two years in the program. They attend regular treatment sessions and twelve step meetings, subjecting themselves to weekly urine tests and appearances before one of two judges.

Judge Cheryl Carey oversees the drug court in Seattle. She says there are some common themes among most who come before her.

“They were very sick. They were in a very dark place. Many were homeless. Many have no friends, they lost their families,” Carey said.

But Carey says the drug court not only helps them restore all of that and more, but they gain new families and friends – their fellow program participants, counselors, and even the judge herself. Carey sends each of her graduates off with a certificate of completion, and a warm embrace.

She calls the experience transformational for participants and those who work in the program alike.

“They have their family back. They have jobs. They’re in school. They understand the importance of being honest, not only with other people but themselves,” she said.

And she says perhaps most important is regaining the trust of their families, friends and others.

The participants come from all walks of life – young and old, rich and poor, black and white, educated and high school drop outs alike.

Chan Tho is a recent graduate of the program. He credits everyone from the counselors to the judge with saving his life, so much so he now volunteers in the court several days a week. It’s a far cry from when he first landed in drug court.

“I was homeless, living in the Jungle for 17 years. I was using drugs every day with no future and no hope. I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said standing proudly at the podium in front of the packed courtroom. “Drug court saved me over and over again.”

The joy is palpable as friends and family celebrate the 14 graduates – who become just the latest among the over 2,000 people who’ve successfully reclaimed their lives instead of rotting in a cell before returning to the streets. There’s plenty of gratitude, for everyone from the counselors to the judges who oversaw their time in the program.

And after more than 20 years, Satterberg says the program has more than proven itself time and time again.

“It’s quietly the most successful program that we have to get people treatment they couldn’t otherwise afford, and get people back into a situation where they have hope in their lives and turn them from offenders into taxpayers, which is our goal,” he said.

It’s a goal that offers a glimmer of hope, in an unlikely place that often doesn’t offer a lot of it.


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