From handcuffs to help: Spokane program aims to break recidivism cycle

Could there be a literal cure for crime in the Inland Northwest?

Frustrated with seeing so many felons repeat the "arrest-jail-release" cycle, the Spokane County justice system is rethinking how it treats some law-breakers, seeing them as patients rather than prisoners. But is moving them from handcuffs to help actually making our communities safer?

Drugs and crime is how Ashlei Reitan's life in the court system got started, when she was picked up for possession.

"Meth and heroin are the easiest drugs to come by in Spokane. Left, right, it's everywhere. You'll do anything you can to get what you want at the end of the night," Reitan said.

She said she was really scared.

"Then I met Kat in jail and she helped me get my life back together."

Kat is Kathleen Armstrong. Since 2016, she's been winning the war on drugs and crime in Spokane by taking a highly unusual approach -- she take the criminal out of the court system.

"Folks on my program, they want their charges dismissed. They don't want a probation officer, they don't want to be in trouble with the law anymore. They want this stuff to go away," Armstrong said. "Well, I have a way to make that happen."

Here's how it works: Instead of jail, participants get treatment for mental health and drugs, if they're using.

"It's like a one-stop shop," Armstrong explained. "You get your chemical dependency, you can get your mental health needs, your homeless needs, whatever needs you need met, under one roof."

But as Reitan learned when she checked into the rehab center, her struggle with addiction was far from over.

"I was checking my mail. Someone in my apartment complex just came to me and said, 'Hey, let's hang out sometime.' I went over to their apartment and got high."

In the past, that would have been the final straw for Reitan. Relapsing is a violation that would traditionally send you back to jail -- but in the Mental Health Diversion program, things work differently. Instead of going back behind bars, Reitan went back to getting help.

Armstrong's program would never have gotten off the ground without the support of law enforcement, but everyone from patrol officers to prosecutors can see it's working.

For her part, Reitan has been clean since graduating from Armstrong's program.

"Honestly, if I didn't meet Kat in jail, I probably still would be using and that's the honest truth," Reitan said.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 76 percent of offenders are re-arrested within five years. For the people who go through this mental health diversion program, only 35 percent are re-arrested.

That's a big win, but even so, the future of the program remains uncertain. It's funded by a grant they must re-apply for every year. They would like to eventually get to a point where it's worked into the city budget. 

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