Judge: Wellness Court graduate shows that change can come about

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

The last time Gabriel Katzeek was arrested, he didn't imagine the judge would someday give him a power tool along with his sentence.

Juneau District Judge Peter B. Froehlich smiled when later asked about the gift. During a hearing Thursday, he referred to Katzeek's four-month probation sentence as a "formality."

On Thursday Katzeek graduated from Wellness Court at a hearing complete with a certificate of achievement. And Froehlich surprised him with the graduation present to encourage the 22-year-old defendant to continue his interest in woodwork, he said.

Froehlich said he set up Wellness Court about 2 1/2 years ago as an alternative for people who continue to end up before a judge when their biggest problem is alcohol. The idea of Wellness Court is to work to get defendants better.

"I think it works," Froehlich said. "Gabe Katzeek has proven that it works."

Katzeek left court Thursday smiling and waving goodbye to the judge. Outside the courtroom, he didn't sound like someone who had just been sentenced.

"I just think this is a positive step in the right direction," he said of his experience.

Although Katzeek completed only two years of high school before dropping out, he told the judge he may be only a couple of weeks away from getting his GED high school equivalency certificate.

He talked about getting a four-year college degree in material design.

During the hearing, Froehlich recalled days when Katzeek had less reason for optimism.

"You had maybe the most cases of anyone who has gone through this," he told Katzeek.

He reminded Katzeek that he was in and out of District Court before he had come to Wellness Court.

"In one case you got a 60-day jail sentence," the judge said. "You violated probation a few times."

Katzeek came to the Wellness Court program with charges such as domestic assault, criminal trespass and escape, Froehlich said.

"Everything had to do with your drinking," the judge said, suggesting that when Katzeek escaped from a half-way house, he was looking for a drink.

Katzeek didn't just meet the legal requirements to complete a program, as one fulfills terms of probation. Froehlich said he has turned his life around.

"He's been clean and sober for seven months," the judge pointed out.

In some places wellness courts and drug courts, which similarly address the drug abuse underlying criminal activity, are held more often than in Juneau. Froehlich said a similar program in Anchorage has weekly sessions.

His Wellness Court meets the fourth Thursday of every month. He has graduated more than 20 defendants, he said. With Thursday's graduation, two are left. One of those is set to leave in October.

Defendants in the program appear before the judge during each session. Froehlich discusses their progress in fighting alcohol dependence and living a productive life, personally and professionally.

On Thursday, the three program participants discussed their regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and talked about their use of naltrexone. The non-addictive prescription drug has been shown to block people's craving for alcohol.

When it came time for Katzeek's sentence, Froehlich said he wanted to make sure he completes the condition of getting his GED. Sometimes that can take longer than people expect, he said.

Wellness Court is voluntary, Froehlich said. Participants "have to have the desire to change. That's the key."

Froehlich said that despite the trouble Katzeek was getting into, the judge saw something that showed he could turn his life around.

In addition to defendants wanting to participate in Wellness Court, Froehlich said he would like to see more prosecutors agree to its use. He knows that it can require more work, but he believes the results make it all worthwhile.

"What we're trying to do is minimize jail time and maximize sobriety," Froehlich said.

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