Joint therapeutic court launches in Kenai

The Henu’ Community Wellness Court is on the brink of admitting its first participant after more than a year of work to get off the ground.

A joint therapeutic-style court formed between the state and the Kenatize Indian Tribe, the program will target and admit those facing long felony sentences relating to substance abuse or Child in Need of Aid cases. Its focus on healing and rehabilitation will help reduce the likelihood that those facing charges will re-offend, its creators have said.

“The Henu’ Community Wellness Court is a first-of-its-kind in the state collaboration between the State of Alaska Court Systems and an Alaska Native tribe, with Kenaitze,” said Matt Oakley, a tribal probation officer hired for the program.

The experimental court, in which Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran and Kenatize Chief Tribal Judge Kim Sweet will hear cases side by side, was first announced in October 2015 at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. Since then, its creators have gone through meetings with groups from the Lower 48 who have created similar programs in the past, hired probation officers and coordinators to help run the program, finished defining the court’s handbook and signed a memorandum of understanding in Fairbanks in October 2016.

The memorandum, an agreement between the tribe’s government and the Alaska government, was a factor in the court program being approved.

“It means that we don’t have to waive sovereign immunity in order to start this court,” Sweet said in a previous Clarion interview.

Terri Telkamp, project coordinator for the wellness court, said at a Tuesday meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Re-entry Coalition in Kenai that the joint court’s first participant is pending acceptance into the year-and-a-half-long program, which can take up to 20 offenders. Oakley, who also presented to the coalition Tuesday, described the project as a post-arrest, pre-sentencing jail diversion program for people with substance abuse issues.

“We are hopeful that it will greatly reduce the rates of recidivism in the community,” Oakley said. “… Instead of just a 30-day treatment, 60-day treatment program, we’re going to be seeing them for a year and a half.”

He said program team members hope to have offenders that are identified as having substance abuse problems being evaluated in the new program system within 48 hours after their arrest. Those deemed eligible for the joint court will be referred by the Kenai District Attorney’s office.

The wellness court will provide a combination of substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment for those who require it and “an intensive probation program,” Oakley said. Participants will have frequent check-ins and weekly court hearings for the first three months of the program.

Telkamp said project team members are actively seeking applicants to the joint court, which is open to anyone who fits the criteria of facing a long felony sentence related to substance abuse, whether they are Native or not. The program is voluntary, and participants can opt out at any time. Oakley said the wellness court will be attractive to offenders thinking about participating because it presents the possibility of greatly reduced charges, even up to complete dismissal depending on the individual case.

Oakley said a major goal of the joint court is to greatly reduce the area’s recidivism rate, or the rate at which inmates re-offend and end up back in jail. When the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission — formed by Senate Bill 64 in 2014 — released 21 recommendations for the Alaska Department of Corrections in December 2015, many of them focused on reducing the state’s recidivism rate. The commission heard results of a study done by Pew Charitable Trusts earlier that year, which found that while Alaska’s recidivism rate has gone down slightly since the early 2000’s, almost two-thirds of released offenders return to prison within three years.

“This is a new concept for the area so we’re hopeful that it really will help bring the community back together,” Oakley said of the joint court.

The program’s creators have emphasized its utilization of local organizations and service providers as something that will help the project be successful in rehabilitating those with substance abuse issues.

“Part of my role that I’m really excited about is the outreach,” Telkamp said. “This is not a passive court. This is an active court. Matt and I are going to be going — and he already is — going out to community places, businesses, jails, rehab facilities. We’re going to actively recruit and work with community members to become mentors. We are looking for innovative … rewards (and) incentives.”

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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