An Eye on Transformation in District Court

Paul Chapman, Director
of Restore Hope Arkansas
Paul Chapman, Director of Restore Hope Arkansas Photography by Jason Masters

A group of people lingers along a riverbank, when suddenly they hear the frantic cry of a baby being swept along in the swift water.

One person plunges into the water to rescue the baby, only to see another baby in the same predicament, and then another.

As the companions join to save the infants, they notice one person instead running away. “Where are you going?,” they cry.

“I’m going upstream to find out how these babies are getting into the river,” he calls back.

UPSTREAM

“We must intentionally look back, to glean where life went awry for so many of our brothers and sisters in Arkansas who are plagued by cycles of poverty and persistent substance abuse,” says Paul Chapman, Director of Restore Hope Arkansas.

Many of these Arkansans are on the verge of being drawn deeper into criminal behavior and/ or losing custody of their children.

Looking squarely upstream, we see the district courthouse, a place where our lesser injustices are funneled and adjudicated. Here, judges remind us that we must repair our broken tail light; we cannot steal from our neighbor; and, if we drink at a party someone else must drive us home. They assign a penalty so that we make a better choice next time.

But for many who most need a change, the district courthouse becomes a recurring destination and an ineffective agent of behavior change.

“When we look at criminal justice reform, most folks are focusing on circuit court, the felony level. These specialty courts are certainly effective at addressing underlying issues. But we also need to go upstream. You want to prevent crime? To avoid having to build a new jail or prison in 10 years? We’re going to have to stop the flow of babies in the river,” Chapman says. “District courts are one of those places we’ve identified to find people who are starting to get in trouble before it leads to incarceration, more addiction, and removal of children into foster care.”

Early intervention is cheaper, adds people to the workforce and provides additional tools to our district court judges, who handle far more cases than judges in other courts but have few options beyond ordering jail time or assigning a fine.

“We’re able to find folks who are struggling, hold them accountable, get them clean with the court but also get them the help they need. The judge likes it, the prosecutors like it, and some of these folks are going to get diverted from jail, prison, foster care, all of which are wildly expensive. It doesn’t take many of those people avoiding jail or prison, or avoiding foster care for their kids, before all of a sudden you’ve got really positive returns on investment.”

“WE’RE ABLE TO FIND FOLKS WHO ARE STRUGGLING, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE, GET THEM CLEAN WITH THE COURT BUT ALSO GET THEM THE HELP THEY NEED.”
Paul Chapman

In this issue of Smart Justice, we’ve highlighted the work of some district court judges in Arkansas who are using community diversion programs to help defendants improve their lives and to break cycles that perpetuate crime.

These judges offer credit when defendants gain job skills and education, undergo therapy for mental health or substance abuse, and better organize their personal lives and finances. Jail time and/or fines can be reduced, and in some cases convictions are avoided.

Opportunity, vision and resources are antidotes to crime, Chapman says.

“By expanding these programs across the state, we can support individuals who are already showing signs of struggle in misdemeanor court and address their issues so that they don’t continue on the road leading to more serious trouble. We’re reducing crime, increasing public safety. We’re spending our money in more productive ways.”

UNDERCURRENT

Substance abuse is a commonality of many cases in district court – people using drugs or alcohol because they’re addicted or trying to escape misery.

“Probably 80 percent of the folks who are in our jails, whether felony or misdemeanor, deal with drugs, and it stems from generational drug use and abuse,” says White County Sheriff Philip Miller. “Having a program embedded in the district court system to help break that cycle before someone ends up in prison, that would be really beneficial. It frees up our jails, and we’re not having to use tax dollars to incarcerate people who have never seen a different way.”

“Right now we’re spending tax dollars to incarcerate people, and they’re not learning a different way in jail either. They get trapped in a cycle that some of them will stay in for life. But I think if we embed these programs in a district court setting, so they can get the help immediately, that’s a much better use of our tax dollars.”

Donald Raney has served since 2013 as deputy prosecutor for seven of the district court departments in White County.

“I would say 70 to 80 percent of the people who come to the district court system are addicted to marijuana, meth, or alcohol, and they need help and their families need help to survive. It’s just a real problem,” Raney says.

“With a lot of the traffic in the district courts, maybe they’re charged with speeding or something else. But the bottom line is they were high. It’s tied to an addiction. If you’ve been a prosecutor for any period of time in a district court, you know exactly what I’m saying. And diversion, in my opinion, is the key to cure. People who are addicted to something and cannot get off of it have got to have help. They can’t do it themselves.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court has sanctioned a number of specialty courts in Arkansas to address concerns like substance abuse. Most operate in circuit courts, but a few district court judges have developed sanctioned programs and can pursue funding to help conduct formal assessments of defendants before they’re accepted.

In other jurisdictions, district court judges are styling and running their own diversion programs based on what their communities need, yet they don’t have additional resources to pay for assessments and manpower for extra scheduling and tracking.

A key component for all is the use of treatment teams to monitor each participant’s plan and progress. Treatment teams are made up of attorneys and prosecutors, substance abuse professionals, peer support specialists and representatives of social service agencies.

Chapman envisions assigning caseworkers to these treatment teams who specialize in linking clients with the myriad of resources in each county

A NEW MOVEMENT

Restore Hope Arkansas was formed in 2016 to impact what was then the fastest growing prison population in the nation. Its initiatives are operating in six counties, helping to link existing social services and state agencies with a unique format for case management and software that lets those entities communicate with each other about individual needs for each client.

In its sixth year, Restore Hope has the hard data to demonstrate efficacy and scalability of its initiatives and aims to serve 25 Arkansas counties by 2025.

“We don’t provide the social services ourselves,” Chapman says. “The organizations are already there. They just need something to connect them.”

One of Restore Hope’s initiatives is 100 Families, with six offices throughout the state, where families are assigned a caseworker to help build stability in 14 key areas, including housing, employment, transportation, childcare, food, education, legal, mental and physical health and recovery needs.

Cases are managed using software called HopeArk, which Restore Hope provides along with training.

Think of a “social work Facebook,” says Dana Baker, White County Coordinator for 100 Families. “It’s a running story of what is going on in our clients’ lives, positive and negative. And within that case management system, you have a care team of mental health and substance abuse providers, and as clients stabilize in those two areas we add education partners, employment partners, parenting centers, housing partners. We add financial planners, people who help them make a budget. And those partners can communicate with each other, with all the necessary privacies built in.”

...WITHIN THAT CASE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM, YOU HAVE A CARE TEAM ... THOSE PARTNERS CAN COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER, WITH ALL THE NECESSARY PRIVACIES BUILT IN.
DANA BAKER, WHITE COUNTY COORDINATOR FOR 100 FAMILIES

White County this year has averaged between 280 and 320 clients, Baker said. A 100 Families caseworker is also assigned to a district court in White County and attends each hearing armed with a docket to target current clients who need support and identify potential new clients.

“We’re looking for people with charges like possession of controlled substances, possession of drug paraphernalia, a lot of failure to pay,” Baker says. “It means that they have a history and for some reason they may be fearful to come back to court or to make a payment arrangement. They may have several failures to appear. If they show up that day, we want to help them understand how making better decisions, starting with just showing up to court, will benefit them in the future. And they often need mental health and substance abuse services.”

This opens a door to many supportive services which some of the neediest clients didn’t know existed or didn’t know how to access.

“We’re changing the whole mindset in our community and bringing awareness to obstacles. For instance, in order for someone to apply for any public assistance, whether it’s for housing or maybe for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamps) – for any of these resources, even if it’s short-term housing in a homeless shelter, they’re going to have to have a form of I.D. They need a state-issued I.D., a birth certificate or Social Security card. And often our clients are coming out of jail or they don’t know where those documents are. Even if they had them, it’s still hard to access those services. Or they need a therapist but don’t know which one would be best.

“So we start at the ground level. What must you have before you can move on to the next thing? We’re helping them address every single barrier.”

Case workers remove roadblocks but don’t do the work for clients, Baker says.

“We talk through everything that can prevent them from being connected to the resources they need. Oftentimes, the paperwork alone is overwhelming. Oftentimes, a lot of these programs want you to apply online. Our clients don’t have computers, laptops, Wi-Fi access, and so we help them get access. We don’t work harder than our clients. I’m not going to sit there and fill out a 45- page housing application for them, but I am going to either hand it to them on paper, or hand them a laptop in our office with our Wi-Fi, and help them to fill that out.”

Each month, clients are reassessed in each of the 14 areas so they don’t relapse. About 75 percent of clients are completing programs to satisfy their outstanding legal obligations, Baker says.

“A lot of families will actually graduate from their community diversion programs. But then they’ll say to the judge, ‘Your Honor, I know that you’re graduating me today, I won’t see you anymore, but I’m going to stick with 100 Families.’ And the more they stabilize and address mental health and substance issues, the more they’re ready to receive education opportunities, better employment opportunities, address their driver’s license issues, save money to buy a car, and get better housing,” Baker says.

“We want to continue to work with them as long as we can to bring them to a career. A career is money in the bank. Buying a house, off of all public assistance. So to me, that’s three to four years or more from crisis to stability.”

Sheriff Miller, who has been involved in law enforcement in White County since 1998, has observed the impact of 100 Families efforts for five years.

“I honestly think we really underestimated the sheer volume of people who needed the kind of help that 100 Families is providing. It is helping to make a difference,” Miller says. “We see those same folks who were coming to jail several times for misdemeanor offenses, through no fault sometimes of their own, other than just a system that’s broken, who have now found the help they needed to make that change in their lives and to become successful at something. Which leads to being successful and not coming back through the criminal justice system.”

I HONESTLY THINK WE REALLY UNDERESTIMATED THE SHEER VOLUME OF PEOPLE WHO NEEDED THE KIND OF HELP THAT 100 FAMILIES IS PROVIDING. IT IS HELPING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
Sheriff Miller

Law enforcement doesn’t have a good response to offer when someone is using drugs to cope with a mental health issue, he says.

“Our capability for mental health assistance begins if somebody is suicidal or homicidal; we can get them some help then. Otherwise there’s not much help out there.

“When we move upstream, we find people before they end up in jail and say, ‘Let’s work on this problem now so that you don’t get behind on your fines, you don’t violate your probation and end up in jail and things spiral downhill.’”

“White County is a big county, but we are a very rural county in many ways. And so much of what we see is generational. In my 24 years in law enforcement, I’m now dealing with grandkids of people I dealt with when I started my career – for the same things – because there’s no knowledge or no way to break that cycle.

“100 Families came in and brought the ability to show someone: here’s how you get things lined out with your probation officer; here’s how you contact Workforce Services to help find a job; here’s how you connect with a service to help you find a place to live. People started building their lives back and becoming successful. And that means they’re successfully staying out of the cycle of criminal justice.”

Raney, the deputy prosecutor, sees 100 Families operating in the district courts in White County. He also brings a judge’s perspective, having served as a city judge for 34 years prior.

“I see people getting help now who didn’t have that chance before. I’m seeing people going into these programs. They do get help. Now, there are some mean people out in the world and we’re not going to cure them and jail’s there for them. I’m talking about criminals who are thieves, who batter and assault people,” Raney says.

“But for the right people, they can get off the drugs, get off the alcohol and become good citizens again. We’ve got to convince the community and city government and state government that these programs are worth participating in.”

“I was a city court judge for 34 years, and I had absolutely no support, nothing like this. And we kept seeing the same people over and over again. Whether it was speeding, you know, it didn’t matter. It was tied to an addiction. And we just didn’t have anything. You’ve got to have more than charging fines to change someone’s behavior. And I think if I would have been able to direct some of those people as a city court judge to these programs, it could have had a big effect.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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