'Last-chance' program helps drug addicts win the 'battle for (their) life' - East Idaho News

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‘Last-chance’ program helps drug addicts win the ‘battle for (their) life’

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POCATELLO — When Shawn Grischkowsky was arrested on drug charges in 2015, he was sure he would face a significant prison sentence.

Instead, he received a life-changing acceptance into the Wood Court treatment program.

Grischkowsky, now 35, was charged with drug possession for the first time in 2007. His numerous subsequent charges and convictions include DUI, possession and delivery. Following his 2015 arrest, Grischkowsky applied for the Drug and Mental Health treatments courts, but he was denied due to being “high-risk.”

“Wood Court was this new thing — I think I was, maybe, the fifth or sixth person to graduate (from the Bannock County Wood Court program),” Grischkowsky told EastIdahoNews.com. “I didn’t know what it was. I knew that I wanted to stay sober and that I needed a way to deal with my problems.”

Since his graduation from Wood Court in September 2017, Grischkowsky has been a drug-free, law-abiding and productive member of society. In fact, he now has a master’s degree and is working as a social worker. He is the clinical director for a treatment program in Coeur d’Alene, focusing on substance abuse, mental health and trauma — specifically among others who have gone through the criminal justice system.

He described his time in Wood Court as a “fight for my life.”

“I’m an opiate addict. I know for a fact that if I were to use again, it could kill me,” he told EastIdahoNews.com. “So, very much so, it became about fighting for my life and fighting for my family — fighting for my daughter.”

What is Wood Court

At any given time, there are up to 40 participants in Bannock County’s Wood Court program. Those 40 participants are chosen from applicants to the county’s six problem-solving courts for their high-risk and high-treatment needs.

JoAn Wood served as the Idaho State Representative in Seat 35A — Bonneville County — from 1981 through 2014.

Wood identified a shortcoming in the Mental Health Court — another of the problem-solving, treatment courts available in Idaho. Mental Health Court only accepts applicants suffering from four diagnosed mental illnesses — schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar and major depression, according to Bannock County Wood Court Coordinator Katie Avichouser, who refers to Wood Court as “last-chance court.”

“There was no real treatment court that would fit that class of folks in the correctional system that had a mental health issue and substance use issue,” said District Judge Javier Gabiola, who sits on the Bannock County Wood Court Bench.

After advocating for another court that would fill gaps in mental health treatment, including drug dependency, Wood was able to procure funding from the state for the court that now bears her name.

Wood Court is designed to be different, Bannock County Chief Public Defender David Martinez said. Where other treatment courts are designed to stop someone’s criminal proclivities from advancing, Wood Court is designed to correct criminal thinking in multiple-time offenders.

Martinez, a member of the extensive Wood Court staff, calls serving in the program one of his favorite things about his job.

“We can help them — we can assist them in staying out of prison by changing their lives,” Martinez told EastIdahoNews.com. “They’re giving up a lot of freedom, a lot of control of their lives, to be in this program. The people that successfully complete it, they work really, really hard, and they become heroes of mine for working so hard and making those changes in their lives.”

Wood Court launched in Bonneville County in 2008. In 2015, it expanded to Bannock County.

According to Gabiola, Bonneville and Bannock counties’ Wood Courts — the only two in the state — operate on an annual budget of a combined $1 million, dedicated from the Idaho Department of Correction.

6th District Judge Javier Gabiola
District Judge Javier Gabiola inside his courtroom at the Bannock County Courthouse. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Who qualifies for Wood Court and how are they chosen

To begin with, anyone convicted of sexual or violent crimes are not eligible for treatment court.

Criminal defendants who fit into the set parameters of one of the six treatment courts — Felony Drug/DUI, Family Treatment, Juvenile Drug, Mental Health, Veterans or Wood — can apply for acceptance into the programs.

Those applications go to Jared Marchand, 6th District Treatment Court Manager, and his office, which, as Martinez put it, triages the applications.

Once an application is placed with its corresponding program, the applicant and the value the program would serve to the applicant is measured based on a set scale.

Wood Court specifically is designed to assist high- to moderate-risk participants with the greatest need for treatment. Unlike other treatment court programs, Wood Court looks to service people who have already served prison or jail sentences, been on a rider or failed probation.

“The idea is dealing with high-risk offenders — people who are dealing with and continuously struggling with substance abuse, along with mental health issues,” Avichouser said. “This is an opportunity to do something different, rather than putting them on another rider or giving them more prison times.”

“We take people that are high-risk and, hopefully, provide them with that programming treatment to help reduce the risk of them committing crime in the future,” Gabiola said.

The catch is, due to the demand Wood Court puts on involved staff, the program can accept no more than 40 participants at a time. And because the program can take anywhere from 18 months to two years — and in some cases, longer — space in the program is limited and highly coveted.

Also, unlike other treatment courts, Wood Court is a post-sentence treatment program, meaning participants do not enter the program until after they serve their rider or prison or jail time.

How the program works

“It’s a big, huge moving machine,” Marchand said.

“The program is highly intensive, it’s highly structured,” Avichouser added. “You have the community supervision, you have the treatment component … as well as recovery coaching and substance abuse and mental health services.”

The Wood Court program is broken into five phases, during which participants hand control of their life over to Wood Court staff.

Phase 1, Marchand said, is the most intensive. It involves daily checks with the probation officer, regular urine-analysis tests and weekly hearings before Gabiola. Gabiola and the Wood Court staff assign needed treatment for each participant.

“Between working full time, all the treatment that we require them to do, all the classes — working with treatment court providers, checking in with their probation officers, drug testing, going to meetings on their own — they’re busy every day,” Martinez said. “They’re giving up a lot of autonomy because we’re basically taking over their life for two years.”

Martinez said Wood Court is designed around standards and practices determined through years of national research. The Wood Court staff attends yearly conferences to develop new tools and improve the service it provides.

The staff meets quarterly to identify and discuss improvements each member of the staff has discovered.

Because the program is fluid and designed to specifically serve each participant, there is no set time frame for phase 1 — or any other phase.

Participants are required to maintain regular contact with their probation officer and take regular drug tests throughout the program.

In phase 2, they are required to attend hearings three times a month.

During these hearings, updates on compliance with the program is provided by the staff.

Wood Court hearings are informal. Gabiola said he does not wear his judge’s robe during the hearings. Martinez describes the hearings as more conversational than a standard hearing — with the participant asked to provide their own feedback.

If the need for additional assistance is identified, it is provided to the participant.

“When they get to the third phase, when they’ve really had a chance to be exposed to everything, that’s generally when things slow down a bit,” Marchand said.

Phase 3 requires attendance at court twice a month.

During the first four phases, Avichouser said, participants are slowly given introduced to more freedoms. They are monitored, though, and required to continue their work.

“Our focus is to — throughout phases 1 through 4, we get violations of the rules. … We focus on providing a response to that behavior. Our goal is to address substance use issues and mental health issues,” Avichouser said.

Phase 5

According to Avichouser, the fifth phase can be described as a “maintenance period.”

“That’s really their opportunity to shine, and show that, ‘Hey, I’ve taken all the skills from the program and I’m doing good,'” she said.

Part of the participant’s journey, she added, is learning how to be sober, how to take advantage of the assistance and supervision when it is not required.

Participants attend court once a month. They are not required to check in with the staff, but can check in as often as they would like. However, they are still subject to drug testing and treatment classes.

Martinez said the process as a set of “proximal” and “distal” goals. Overcoming drug dependency and combating mental illness, he said, are examples of distal goals — things that will take time, perhaps a lifetime, to reach.

“Getting clean is a process — it’s not a proximal goal, in the beginning,” he said. “What is a proximal goal is, showing up — show up and don’t lie — those they can do today.”

When a participant shows they can stay clean from drugs, avoid contact with the enablers and maintain their reprogrammed lifestyle, they graduate from Wood Court.

“Sometimes, as a lawyer, you help someone work through their legal problems, and then they’re on probation and you’re not an active part of their continuing struggle — successes and difficulties. This is an opportunity to be with someone all the way through their journey, and to help the whole way through,” Martinez said. “When someone doesn’t make it, it’s heartbreaking. But when they succeed, it’s kind of magical.”

What happens when someone fails

“Active recovery” from drugs, Gabiola said, is a two-year mission, according to research. So, Wood Court participants are in active recovery throughout their time in the program. “The nature” of substance abuse recovery, he added, is the occasional relapse. Usually, after that two-year period, the recovery process is about maintenance and remembering the steps to clean living.

When the Wood Court staff sees effort from a participant, he added, it rallies to support that participant. A misstep, he said, does not constitute immediate failure.

It “takes some doing to be terminated from the program,” Gabiola added, but it does happen.

When a participant is removed from the program, Gabiola can either re-sentence that participant or have them go back to the original sentencing judge to be re-sentenced.

“That’s hard,” Marchand said. “You want people to live a free, happy life, and sometimes they just can’t get there.”

Those who are removed from the program are subject to additional incarceration.

Success rates and benefits

Wood Court graduated 77% of its participants during the 2023 fiscal year, Gabiola said. And the program’s 10% to 15% recidivism rate is “much lower” than that of conventional probation or parole. According to the state’s findings findings, 10.1% of convicted felons will violate probation or parole, while 41.3% will re-offend.

Gabiola acknowledged a cost-benefit advantage to the program.

But, he said, “To me, the benefit is getting them the treatment they need and showing them how to be substance-free and out of the correctional system.”

Marchand called the program a “true gift” for participants, who could have their conviction removed from their record after successfully completing it.

“I believe in treatment courts,” Avichouser added. “I think they’re a great opportunity for people — of course, you’re going to have people who aren’t going to be successful, but you’re going to have a lot of people who are.”

Martinez sees life as “what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

He assigned himself to the Wood Court because he saw how much it could help the community he serves. In 28 years with the Bannock County Public Defender’s Office, he has seen a “mind-boggling” increase in PTSD-, mental illness- and trauma-related crimes.

“They are lifetime challenges,” he said. “They don’t go away.”

Shawn Grischkowsky

Grischkowsky tried to quit drugs several times, he told EastIdahoNews.com. He would remain clean for days, weeks, sometimes months. But he would always relapse.

He has since learned that, while he was able to survive physically without his drug of choice — heroin and fentanyl — emotionally and socially, he never learned how to be sober.

That was what he learned in Wood Court.

He says, among the many programs Wood Court provides, it taught him to properly manage money.

Prior to Wood Court, he would often fall into a financial hole, and with no knowledge of being able to face the stresses of life without drugs, he would get high to escape them.

Grischkowsky said when he entered Wood Court he remained in jail custody — on work release. He was not released from jail until he obtained a job and maintained that job through multiple pay periods and was able to show he could pay his rent.

Asked if there was a specific factor within the Wood Court program that helped him where other programs had failed, he said that Wood Court offers “camaraderie,” something others did not.

He said he saw a side of judges, prosecuting attorneys and jail and court staff he had never seen in his many previous trips through the system. He was also encouraged to open communications and partnerships with other participants.

“Having other people that are doing good in the program that you can hang out with when you have to, basically, walk away from everyone you knew who was using or in that lifestyle,” Grischkowsky said, was huge for his success. “The camaraderie is huge. It’s connection — you’re building a connection with people who are on the same pathway as you. … There is nothing more powerful as someone who is going through the same experiences as you, and is fighting for their life at the same time.”

Looking back now, Grischkowsky said he is grateful but somewhat surprised to still be alive. And he can track his sustained sobriety to a single moment.

When he started in Wood Court, he got a job as a cook at a local restaurant. While he was working there, a former friend he used to do drugs with was hired. One day, he and his friend were leaving work together when his friend asked him if he wanted to get lunch.

Grischkowsky recalls knowing the decision to go with his friend would end in the two of them getting high. He said he stood in front of the restaurant, his car in one direction and his friend’s in the opposite.

He reached deep into himself and found the strength to walk to his car, get in and head home.

“That was when I knew that something was different. It was, literally, this pivotal moment — it was, ‘What do you want?’ Every part of my body, my brain was screaming to go the other way,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that to my family anymore — I didn’t want to do that to myself anymore. … My actions are backing that up now.”

Grischkowsky now spends his days helping others work to and through that moment. He welcomes his daughter, now 15, every summer and says the two have developed a great relationship. He has found his “serenity” in combining the steps to being physically sober with the tools to be emotionally sober and the strength he gets from his faith.

To those fighting the same fight he’s had for almost eight years, Grischkowsky has a message:

“September is National Recovery Month, and I hope that living my recovery out loud can speak to the alcoholic and addict still suffering and provide hope. We do recover.”