“The system I had villainized, today I admire and respect,” Bridie Clevenger told a crowd — which included the officer who had arrested her — inside the Federal Way courthouse.
She is one of the four individuals honored at last week’s Community Court graduation ceremony in Federal Way.
This therapeutic court option is designed to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior of repeat offenders in the Federal Way Municipal Court system by providing wrap-around services to ensure people who get into the system are able to get out and, hopefully in the long run, stay out, said Karama Hawkins, head of the public defender’s office.
The graduation, the second of this year, is held in honor of Community Court participants who have demonstrated success in overcoming obstacles that have resulted in judicial intervention in the past.
“Therapeutic courts are more intentional about aligning the defendant with services they need,” said Federal Way Municipal Judge David Larson. “When people are ready for a change, we’re ready to help provide them with that change.”
Judge Larson and Judge Rebecca Robertson share Community Court duties. Judge Robertson said she looks forward to handling the Community Court because of the commitment to positive change by all involved.
There’s a huge problem out there with the opioid crisis and untreated mental illness, Larson said. Therapeutic courts, also called “problem-solving courts,” focus on the root issues instead of continuing to simply treat symptoms.
While it is not a “foolproof process” or one-size-fits-all remedy, he said, this approach works due to the magic of dignity and respect shown to each defendant.
“The legal system itself is not a caring place, but we make it so that the person, when they come into community court, they feel supported. They [feel] a part of something.”
Last week’s graduates were Darnetta Berry, Shavante Aston and Emily Johnson. Bridie Clevenger was honored as a milestone achievement recipient.
“The goal is to do what we can to support people through the process when they’re coming into the court system due to mental health, drug issues and homelessness to try to help tackle those at the base level,” Hawkins said.
Rather than perpetuating the “comply or go to jail” routine, this program questions how and why defendants were unable to comply while addressing these barriers openly and honestly, Hawkins said. It also allows defendants to give back in a positive way to the community they’ve harmed or damaged with their behavior.
Clevenger opted in to community court in July 2018 “honestly because I didn’t want to go to jail at the time,” she told the room of more than 30 attendees last Thursday.
Clevenger was in active heroin addiction. She would come to the courtroom and cry because she didn’t know what else to do or how to get the help she needed.
Rather than telling her what to do, Clevenger was shown how and what to do to find recovery and stay out of the courtroom. Valley Cities care coordinators showed her how to make her necessary appointments, and what to do if she wasn’t going to show up.
“I didn’t feel like I was worth anything, nothing, none of it,” she said about her self-esteem upon entering the program.
By earning the milestone achievement, Clevenger was recognized for strides and accomplishments made in her life, in the program, and personally in perception of herself. When people first come into the program they often lack self-esteem and self-worth, Hawkins noted.
Clevenger gained back relationships she once lost; she’s in communication with her children today, her family talks to her once again, and Clevenger said, she no longer avoids herself.
“I’m so worth it today and I can do this,” Clevenger said. “… This is probably the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever made in my life.”
As judge Larson presented each honored individual with their certificate, they also chose a stone engraved with a positive affirmation to keep with them.
Three simple rules marked the graduation certificates: do what’s right, do the best you can, and treat others the way you want to be treated.
Upon entering community court, one of the first things that has to be done is build up the individual’s sense of self-worth, Larson said.
“Any of us, all of us, have those kind of self doubt issues, but in these cases it’s very acute … one of the No. 1 impediments,” he said. “[We are] getting them to understand that there is hope.”
Graduate Darnetta Berry said she always felt as if she wore her criminal history on her forehead.
“I decided it was either now or never for me to take that step to get clean and to be there for my daughter again,” Berry said about her recovery from heroin addiction.
Prior to community court, Berry said she had never felt comfortable in a courtroom.
“I met people and I held conversations with, people that I probably never would have held conversations with because of the fear of me having a background or doing things that I have been doing in the past,” she said.
While she gained so much from this program, one thing she didn’t lose was her daughter, she said.
“This is the reason I decided I had to get myself together,” she said with her voice breaking as she hugged her daughter closer standing at the front of the room.
“To go through this process and stand by her today and know that I’m over three months clean, it feels good,” she said. “And to know there’s all these people that actually care, it makes me feel good.”
Graduate Emily Johnson entered the program desperate for help but unsure how to ask. She knew community court would hold her accountable, she said.
Shortly after opting in to community court, Johnson developed blood clots in her lungs and was admitted into the ICU for six weeks. Her life was at risk.
“Ten months ago I didn’t care if I lived or I died, and today I can stand here confidently saying that I want to live,” Johnson said.
May 1 is her 10-month anniversary of being clean — the longest time in her life she’s been off of heroin in the last 10 years.
“Every time I come into this courthouse, I get treated like a human being, not like a number,” she said. “That’s so important for me to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Individuals must be eligible for community court, and also must want to make a change, Hawkins said.
Crimes such as trespassing, shoplighting, or minor drug offenses are eligible; violent crimes, driving infractions, or sex offenses disaqulify an individual from this restorative justice option.
The program itself varies from person to person, and is tailored to the specific needs of each person, she said. It could include resolving licensing and transportation issues, assisting with navigation of insurance processes, or connecting with addiction recovery resources.
What happens after graduation depends entirely on each person, Hawkins said.
Since beginning in 2018, community court has been entirely unfunded and based on volunteer donations of time, resources and work, Hawkins said.
“It’s a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship that fosters something positive and beautiful,” Hawkins said.
The program has been able to accomplish “a lot with very little” specifically due to the few graduates who have come back to donate time and provide help to this very program they completed, she said.
“I think therapeutic courts need to be the norm rather than the exception,” Larson said, adding that nationwide this is a movement gaining traction. “There’s a lot more people out there than we give credit for that really want to change their lives.”
Larson said he runs a repair shop, not a junkyard.
Sometimes the temptation in the judicial system is to deal with the surface cause and “check a box,” Larson said, but tending to the core problems yields a courtroom motto of: “No repeat customers.”