FAIRBANKS — Each Thursday, a group of DUI offenders meets in the Rabinowitz Courthouse.

The offenders check their watches and go inside the courtroom, where they await their turns before the judge.

The judge asks each if there any questions or concerns. He jokes with some. He asks about plans. “We’ll clap for you and see you next week,” Judge Raymond Funk says after each client finishes.

Court adjourns just before 4 p.m., leaving participants facing another mandatory week of clean living.

This is Wellness Court.

“We’re looking at the people who most need our intervention,” says Funk, who has invested years getting the program running in Fairbanks. “In one sense, they are the most dangerous because of their addiction.”

Despite the relaxed atmosphere, Wellness Court participants remain under scrutiny. Missteps hold consequences from tightened or extended supervision to immediate jail time. The program unfolds in three phases, requiring 18 months or longer for those incurring sanctions. Compliance with the program’s mandates is tracked weekly.

The strategy, according to Janice Lorenzen, the local Wellness Court coordinator, “is to engage all participants in the criminal justice system in the recovery of the defendant.”

Cornelia Stubblefield, of Pacific Rim Counseling, briefs the judge on each client’s progress at the weekly hearings. “This is an intensive outpatient program that is treatment heavy,” Stubblefield says.

The program

Similar court programs exist in more than 2,000 jurisdictions nationwide. Authority for the Fairbanks program rests in a 2001 law establishing therapeutic courts in Alaska. Two pilot programs were created: one in Anchorage, the other in Bethel. In addition to the one in Fairbanks, therapeutic courts now also operate in Juneau, Ketchikan and Palmer.

Funk was introduced to the idea by Anchorage Judge James Wanamaker, one of the first in Alaska to develop a therapeutic court targeting alcohol abuse.

“It was the graduates that convinced me it really had changed their lives in ways that other things couldn’t,” Funk recalls.

Placement in the program is not automatic. Individual applications are subject to review by the District Attorney’s office, public defenders, Pacific Rim counselors, probation officers, the judges and Wellness Court’s coordinator.

Information is gathered from friends and families. Applicants are given a substance abuse evaluation. Outpatient treatment might not be deemed appropriate given the offender’s addiction issues. A probation officer does a home visit to make sure the applicant would have a safe and sober living environment.

Logistics need to be considered. “Everyone in our program cannot drive,” Assistant Attorney General Sara Simpson points out.

Get caught driving and it’s 30 days in jail. Anyone caught twice is tossed from the program. Criminal records may raise flags.

“Sometimes we have an applicant that is too violent, and our probation officer doesn’t carry a gun,” Simpson said, “so we can’t have someone who is a high safety risk to her or the community.”

A third arrest for drunken driving is prosecuted as a felony, carrying a minimum punishment of 120 days in jail, a $10,000 fine and the loss of a driver’s license for life.

Wellness Court participants avoid some, if not all, of that jail time. Fines are reduced to $6,000, with further deductions given for out-of-pocket program expenses.

However, the program itself has its own system of rewards and punishments for behavior. The requirements are extensive. Mandatory counseling sessions, therapy, visits from the probation officer, frequent testing and a weekly court hearing are required. Participants also are required to work, seek work or go to school for 32 hours each week.

Michelle Bartley, the Therapeutic Courts coordinator for Alaska, estimates the Fairbanks program cost $350,000 this past year. To put that cost in perspective, Alaska spends an average of $44,000 per year per inmate in prisons, jails and halfway houses. A study on the cost of crime by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage states programs like therapeutic courts that keep people out of prison “save the state money right away, because they cost much less” than locking people up. The report also states that without intervention, about two-thirds of inmates who serve their sentences and are released commit new crimes.

The Fairbanks program is still too new to have an accurate picture of its recidivism rates. But a review of the Anchorage program by the Alaska Judicial Council in 2005 found that defendants who had participated or graduated from the program had “fewer days of incarceration, fewer remands to custody and fewer convictions after they began the program than during the two years before.”

The review also stated that the data collected supported continuation and possibly expansion of the therapeutic court systems.

“These courts are a frustration with a criminal justice system that was not working. We had a lot of people in Fairbanks supportive of trying something different,” says Funk while describing the program. His assessment is supported by a review on the transferability of the Anchorage Wellness Court Program in 2008 by the Alaska Judicial Council. It stated that therapeutic courts in Alaska were an effort by Alaska judges to respond to “extreme amounts of alcohol-driven crime, the “revolving door” of criminal justice and the failure of efforts to treat underlying substance and criminality problems.

Public sentiment

Simpson, the district attorney’s representative, said she has seen the Wellness Court “really make a difference.” However, public feedback isn’t that encouraging.

“People in the community are not big supporters. They say it’s expensive, it’s not our problem or that it is not what criminal justice is for.”

Pete Eagan, president of the local MADD chapter, says he’s supportive — “Kind of reservedly so.”

“I think it seems reasonably effective, but it’s only helping a small number of people,” Eagan says. “And they’ve been driving drunk many times and any one of those times they could have killed someone.”

That assessment is borne out by Jesse Thompson, 28, who estimates he drove drunk “well over 1,000 times” before his third arrest motivated him to apply for admission to Wellness Court. “I think it’s good because it’s actually trying to help people solve the problem.”

After seven months in the program, Thompson contends Wellness Court serves as a far better deterrent than incarceration. “Jail doesn’t alter your life. It just takes you away from it. There’s no rehabilitation.”

The burden drunken drivers place on local law enforcement is undeniable.

In 2009, the Fairbanks Police Department arrested 378 people for driving under the influence. Of that total, 34 were felony DUIs, meaning those arrested had two or more prior convictions for driving under the influence.

“It’s a problem we are continually fighting,” says police Lt. Matt Soden. The Fairbanks Police Department has a special unit for traffic and DUI enforcement. When it first started in 2005, it had two officers. It has been expanded to four.

“You have to offer a treatment option when dealing with alcohol for those who really want to break out of the cycle,” says Soden. “The Wellness Court needs to walk a fine line between the people who want help and those who are just using it.”

Successes?

The Fairbanks program accepted its first participants in September 2007. To date, 37 people have enrolled. Three were discharged for violations, three opted out, one died, nine have graduated, 20 remain active and one is awaiting approval.

Those are good results, says Margaret Dodge, a licensed addiction counselor with the Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Center. “Alcoholism is a learned reaction. It takes a long time for the brain to become detoxified and the cravings to go away. The longer you can keep testing them and engaged in the process, the longer the brain has to relearn patterns.”

The first graduates of the program were celebrated in December. Graduates Melisa Larson and Catherine Burkhead have been working on an outreach program for second-time DUI offenders. Another, Keith Rueben, obtained his bachelor’s degree while in the program. Others have carried on with their lives outside of Fairbanks. None has reoffended.

Judge Robert Downes spoke of expansion of Wellness Courts nationwide and praises Funk’s contribution applying the approach locally.

“He has bled the black of his robe for this program,” says Downes.

Funk would like to see the local Wellness Court’s client load reach 20. With a waiting list of 10 to 15 DUI felony offenders, there’s no shortage of candidates. “It has worked out. I have confidence that this is the right thing to spend a lot of time on,” says Funk. “Just sending people to jail and telling them to get treatment doesn’t work.”

“My motivation is not as much to help them,” he adds, “but to prevent someone from getting killed by a drunken driver.”

The experience has changed his perspective as a judge.

“You’re much more detached normally. Most cases are plea bargains. You’re not involved in their lives and struggles,” he says.

“You can’t help but care deeply about these people. You hear their successes and struggles and you worry about them. You get caught up in their lives. It does provide a different level on involvement. Another judge once joked to me, ‘do I have to hug the defendant?’ In a sense, you do.”

“Repeat drunken drivers are the single-most likely batch of people to kill my children in this town,” Funk says. “This program is the best work I can do to try and save lives.”