Recovery Court

By Jamie Swinnerton

Last May the cost of booking and housing Denver’s most frequent petty offenders prompted the creation of a city-funded program called Recovery Court. The idea behind the program was to look at solutions to the underlying causes that keep sending these petty offenders back to jail. Now, a little over a year after it was implemented, evaluation of Recovery Court shows vast improvement for those utilizing it.

The Crime Prevention and Control Center (CPCC) created the list of Denver’s most frequent petty offenders based on data collected from the county courts. Many of the offenders on the list were going through the court system for offenses like public consumption of alcohol or trespassing two or three times a month. Homelessness and addiction were common denominators among the top 300 offenders. Currently, there are 40 people active in the Recovery Court program.

Darvi Brooks is a clinical case manager for Recovery Court—one of four from the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD). Once someone from the list of the top 300 petty offenders is given the choice of joining the program and accepts, they are assigned a case manager like her. “We create a treatment plan for them. And the treatment plan addresses making sure that their basic needs are met,” Brooks said of the first stage of the program. 

This treatment plan can often include recovery from an addiction. MHCD often works with Addiction Research and Treatment Services (ARTS) to provide those in the program with groups to attend on a regular basis. While they are going through the first stage of the program, Brooks meets with them daily to create the best treatment plan possible. A grant from the city covers all health needs that will help the individual reach his goal of self-sufficiency, including things like doctor visits or new eyeglasses. 

In the year prior to Recovery Court, the 40 members currently enrolled had a combined total of 139 arrests and 3,078 jail bed days. A year after becoming participants in Recovery Court, that same group has accumulated 41 arrests and 748 jail bed days.

“The reason they’re not getting rearrested is because they’re getting appropriate treatment,” said Regina Huerter, executive director of the Division of Behavioral Health Strategies (which oversees the CPCC). 

Cities across the nation have begun implementing programs similar to Recovery Court, but not all of them include the legal aspect that Denver’s does. Every Wednesday case managers and the individuals that they work with all attend court to update a judge on their progress. 

Judge Johnny Barajas was assigned to oversee Recovery Court in May after presiding over the Mental Health court in Denver for the last four years. To measure an individual’s progress and give them incentive to keep working, Judge Barajas has a grading scale that usually starts at C, and with hard work can become an A+++++. Those on the honor role, with all five pluses, are called up to speak with Barajas first. Those still working toward honor role are called at random following those already in honor role. 

If individuals are on the honor role for a consistent number of weeks, they may be rewarded in special ways, like only having to come to court twice a month instead of weekly. But the grades can also go down if an individual has a bad week. 

“It rewards them, and it also is somewhat of a sanction without necessarily having to put them in jail,” Judge Barajas said. “Just the fact that they got off the honor role and their grade falls is a reinforcement that you need to do better.”

After an individual has entered the program and accrued three good weeks, meaning they attended their group meetings and have stayed clean, Judge Barajas starts them out with a C grade. Each week they have the potential to go up by half a letter grade if they show improvement. But slip-ups are expected in a program like this. “The first sixty days are up, down, up, down,” said Brooks. Transitioning from living on the streets to having a full weekly schedule and trying to get clean isn’t easy. 

“Ultimately the goal is for them to graduate from the court and be self-sufficient. Because almost all of them are homeless when they come here,” Judge Barajas said. “The fist thing that we focus in on, aside from getting them stable, is to get them housed.” Unfortunately housing is one of the most difficult aspects of the program, both Judge Barajas and Brooks noted. Housing prices in Denver are going up, and there is only so much subsidized housing available. Many of the people going through Recovery Court live in motels or residential treatment facilities until they are stable enough to live on their own and housing for them has been established. 

  Until they reach the later stages of the program, Brooks said that her biggest challenge as a case manager is to keep the people she works with internally motivated. “You don’t get change at all if there isn’t that internal motivation. You can’t do this program because you want to look good. You can’t do this program because we say that we’ll put you up in housing. It has to come from within.” 

Whatever is motivating these individuals, the numbers show that it’s working. For those actively in Recovery Court today, an evaluation of the program released in May shows a 71 percent reduction in arrests. “There’s something about this program that works. People are being so accountable,” Brooks said of the progress she has seen. ■