Circuit Court judge plans her last drug court graduation
The first month of 2018 is a significant one for Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Kathie Steele. As of Jan. 1, she is the first female to be appointed Clackamas County's presiding judge, and on Jan. 22 she will oversee her last Adult Drug Court graduation.
As the presiding judge, her work will be largely administrative, dealing with funding issues and judicial assignments, while also interfacing with law enforcement agencies and the county commissioners, among other groups.
It is the Adult Drug Court program, however, that has occupied her time and energy over the last eight years.
That amount of time is unusual, she said, noting that most judges only work with the drug court for two to four years.
"I took it and hung onto it, because you know you are making a difference in people's lives," Steele said.
Adult Drug Court
Clackamas County Circuit Court opened its pilot phase for Adult Drug Court in 2000 under the direction of Presiding Judge Robert Selander. The initial goal of the pilot program was to reduce drug-related crime in the county and reduce recidivism.
The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office estimates that 70 percent of those arrested are abusing alcohol or other drugs, and 80 percent of county inmates actively abused alcohol or other drugs at the time of their incarceration.
Drug court targets those individuals whose substance use appears to instigate their criminal behavior, therefore working to reduce crime from its source.
The Adult Drug Court program began in earnest in 2001, remaining under Selander's direction until 2010, when Steele and the established multi-agency team took over.
Participants who are accepted into the Program are required to complete a drug-treatment regime, appear before a judge, utilize self-support meetings and organizations, complete a GED if they have not already earned one, and be employed a minimum of 32 hours weekly before they are eligible for graduation.
The ultimate goal of the Clackamas County Drug Court is to provide an opportunity for offenders to return to society as productive participating citizens.
Steele's final graduation ceremony will take place at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 22 at the Willamette Falls Community Center. She will make opening remarks, thanking the partners and participants, and then she will congratulate each of the six graduates.
"I will talk about what their journey looks like and how many days they have been clean. We'll take a look at their booking photo and see how they look now," Steele said.
"They appreciate how different and normal they look now," she added.
Then, the participants will read their graduation statements and talk about what the event means to them.
Steele will give graduates a certificate and a key, representing their bright futures and how successful completion of drug court can open doors to the rest of their lives.
"The keys are tarnished because they've been through a lot," just like the graduates, Steele said.
She also noted that if any children have been born while participants are in the program, she will give them a sterling key that is not tarnished.
Finally, Steele will give family members and friends the chance to speak about the graduates, and it is common for them discuss the improvements they have seen in the lives of the participants throughout their involvement in the program.
The people who come to Clackamas County Adult Drug Court have had "documented addictions for a long time. Their stories are incredibly moving; illegal drugs have affected their lives so profoundly and they couldn't get out by themselves," Steele said.
Their drug use resulted in criminal convictions, and quite a few were looking at going to prison.
"Some never go to jail and some have done other types of sanctions for violating the rules," Steele said.
She looks at drug court as a chance to give participants hope and added, "We are not going to give up on people."
As a defense lawyer for nearly 11 years, Judge Steele witnessed the effects of addiction first-hand, which sparked her passion for the Adult Drug Court program.
Historically, she noted, "fewer people re-offend who have gone through drug court than are on probation as usual."
Much of that success is because participants work with a team of professionals to help them recover from addiction, Steele noted.
"In Clackamas County, we expect all our participants to get treatment from our treatment providers," she said. This way all providers are close by and come to the meetings every Monday, "so we know as soon as possible when something goes wrong."
She added that she emphasizes the importance of being truthful.
If participants make mistakes, "but are truthful about it, we can help. If they are not truthful, the consequences are 100 times worse."
Steele noted that "treatment courts are expensive because you've got mentors, judicial time, defense lawyers, treatment coordinators, treatment providers and district attorneys."
But "we are saving millions of dollars biannually, people are spending less time in jail and being reunited with their families, and they are becoming good, tax-paying citizens," Steele said.
"They like how they feel clean and sober and they learn what to do to attain that."
There are plenty of stories about successful participants, and Steele said she is happy when anybody graduates.
She added, "Failure is disheartening; some fall off the wagon, but they know what to do to get back on."
Caleb Sorenson, 31, is one of the Adult Drug Court participants who will graduate on Jan. 22.
He has met all the requirements and after he graduates will become the general manager of a new location of Legit Roofing, where he is currently a project manager.
He was arrested on multiple felony warrants in 2015 and spent more than a year in prison, before being released to drug court in 2016.
"I have grown a lot further than I expected and I owe that all to this program," Sorenson said.
His sister has also played a big role in his recovery, in that her trust and faith in him provided Sorenson with a job interview at Legit Roofing in Vancouver, where she is the general manager.
Adult Drug Court focuses on giving participants structure to their lives and emphasizes following the rules.
"I look at them not as rules but as a lifestyle. I created a lifestyle to fit the program, and the more I did it, the better life got."
Also, honesty has become "a huge part of my life — I am really sensitive to that," he said.
Sorenson also noted the importance of being accountable.
"Some people rely on the structure [of drug court] to keep them in line, but it is structure plus time that equals integrity. You have to take advantage of time to work on yourself; put in the effort to change yourself," he said.
He is most proud of his attitude towards service to others, noting that recently his sponsor called him and told him about a lady who needed some roofing repair.
Sorenson put shingles on her roof and did not charge her.
He considers graduation to be "the beginning of the real test. It is easy to be clean and sober when a prison sentence is hanging over your head."
Sorenson added, "I know the real test is when I can do anything I want. I have a healthy fear [of re-offending] because I remember what it was like when I was praying for help."