The recent Empire article on Wellness Court gave a good overview of the pilot program being developed in Juneau. A small amount of funding was awarded to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to lay the groundwork for a Wellness Court program in District 1 Court. The high cost of incarceration, about $42,000 a year per prisoner, makes it imperative that we reserve Alaska's limited prison capacity for those who pose the greatest danger to others.
Many alcohol-related crimes are generally petty and victimless, although most major crimes in Alaska are alcohol-related as well. Because Southeast Alaska is one of the heaviest drinking regions in the nation, alcohol-related crimes are overwhelming our court system and our jails. Many people charged with alcohol-related misdemeanors are addicted to alcohol and are doomed to repeat offenses. Others are disinhibited by alcohol and act out in ways they never would when sober. Most of them are not seen in court during periods of abstinence and stability. This does not mean that people who break the law should not suffer the legal consequences of their acts, but the futility and cost of punishment beg for an alternative to incarceration.
Wellness Court is an attempt at an alternative where everyone wins. It is also a big change for a staid system inherently resistant to doing things differently. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and treatment programs must all support efforts to do things differently. If any part of the system does not cooperate, the whole alternative program quickly becomes less effective. In Juneau, Wellness Court is in the experimental phase, and many technical, legal and logistical problems still need to be worked out. Even our limited funding is questionable after June 30, despite broad political support for this program. We are nevertheless determined to make it work here in Juneau where it is most needed. We have already helped change lives for the better and we know we can do more.
We thank the Empire for its coverage and support.
National Council on Alcoholism
and Drug Dependence, Juneau
District court judge