Sentencing Alternatives in the Washington Court Judicial System

As a society we look to punish those that have broken laws. Over the years many different forms of punishment have been implemented. Over time we have realized that not all people who commit crimes should not be treated like criminals. Some steal to support their family; some people burglarize to support a drug addiction. Some people have seen combat and it did not sit well with them and they are prone to mental health  issues associate with Post Traumatic Stress. Do all of these people deserve to be treated like the hardened criminals jails were built for? Over the last twenty years there has been a large movement to “treat” these offenders rather than discard them. Programs such as Drug Court, Veterans Court, as well as Mental Health Court have been instrumental in rebuilding the lives of those who have been a victim of their specific circumstances.

Unfortunately the prison system, often touted as a rehabilitative program, is more punitive in nature and lacks the capacity to serve each inmates needs to help them reintegrate once they have served their criminal sentence. Prison cliques and behaviors sometimes do nothing but reinforce the lack of morality and reaffirm the criminal behavior. This is evident in the prison gangs, the “prison code,” and the high recidivism rates that are seen today. Simply put, prisons don’t work. They never really have worked, over the last two centuries we have used several models to attempt to fix the criminal behavior. We have tried physical abuse, solitary confinement, labor camps or “chain gangs,” as well as rehabilitative programs within the prisons. The issue with these is that the prisoners are still in the prison/criminal environment where bad habits are reinforced on a daily basis. Prisoners are often labeled as “Punks” if they attempt to just do their time and not become involved in the prison culture, they often face harassment and abuse. As you can see this is not a conducive environment to rehabilitation.

In the early 90’s the first Drug Court was implemented, this program looked to spare drug offenders the horror of prison and focus on rehabilitating the offenders. Society has viewed drug addiction as a disease and the crimes committed to further their addiction are a symptom of the disease. Drug court is a very successful program that includes a rigorous treatment plan sometimes involving inpatient treatment. The program consists of regular progress hearings in the court that the defendant is sentenced, weekly random monitored drug screenings, and counseling. Defendants meet in groups and on a 1-on-1 basis with their counselor. If they successfully complete the program they have their charges dismissed with prejudice, meaning they can never be refiled. Many people have problems in their life and make poor decisions. This can be especially true in addiction cases. Over the years, many people have graduated from the drug court program and have gone on to live successful lives. If you believe this option is for you, talk with your criminal defense attorney to see about specific requirements.

Since the success of the Drug Court program, many subsets of this program have been created. One of which is Mental Health Court. This program focuses on mental health issue in defendants. Mental Health issues can be just as debilitating as a drug addiction and can cause unwanted problems and behaviors, especially in those who have not taken care of their problem through counseling and medications. The goal of Mental Health Court is simple, treat the disorder and the behavior should stop. Prison is not a good place for a person with serious mental health issues, oftentimes issues go undiagnosed and the mentally ill are put into solitary confinement or punished for their unstable behaviors. Treatment through Mental Health Court involves community supervision, counseling, medication management, and tools to help one overcome or address the mental illness. Similar to Drug Court, once a defendant completes the program their charges are ultimately dismissed. As you can see this is a great alternative to harsh prison sentences for the mentally ill. If you or someone you know is mentally ill and facing criminal charges, talk with a criminal defense attorney to see about your options.

The most recent form of alternative sentencing is Veteran’s Court. Modeled after Drug Court and Mental Health Court, this program focuses on treating the symptoms rather than punishing the offender. With major combat exposure some people do not do well when they return to society. The traumatic events of war can create a plethora of mental health issues. This was most prominent in soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 60’s and we are seeing it today with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Psychosis, delusions, and violence can all be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Normal, healthy people that have come home from combat can react in irrational ways to situations within their own household and in society. Some veterans develop drug addiction and alcoholism in an Drug-courtattempt to cope with their trauma. Veteran’s Court looks to treat these people and get them the help they specifically need. Given their specific needs programs like Drug Court and Mental Health Court are not adequate to treat them so the courts have designed this program to deal with their specific issues. This program includes drug treatment if necessary, counseling, and exploration of veterans programs to help the veterans after they are done with their court order. As stated earlier, prison is no place for a person who has served our country and as a result been harmed in a mental capacity. Helping veterans reintegrate into society rather than discarding them has proven to be a success so far and hopefully continues to succeed in the future.

All of these programs are very valuable assets in the criminal justice system but these programs are not a free pass to commit crimes and get away with it. In each program there is an admissions process with many qualifying factors. These programs are not for everyone and are exclusive only to those that may benefit the most form them. Many have disqualifying issues such as violent crimes, or serious crimes. These programs are not easy by any means; there is a strict regimen that requires much dedication and time. If the defendant fails to meet the requirements of the program they are terminated and sentenced immediately, subject to the sentence under the Sentencing guidelines.

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