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Daily News editorial

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

The purpose of our legal system is to dispense justice, not merely punish lawbreakers. That’s the bedrock that forms the foundation for Clark County’s system of therapeutic courts.

Our first local therapeutic court, a drug court for felons, was established in 1999. Since then, hundreds of local people have been helped. Clark County now has eight therapeutic specialty courts, assisting drug offenders, families, juveniles and others. For those who meet the requirements and are willing to participate, it’s a chance — perhaps a last chance — to transform their lives with help from social services, addiction counselors and mental health professionals, and regular in-person sessions with the court.

It’s expensive but much less costly than a yearslong pattern of crime, jail and re-offense. Prosecutors screen and approve all candidates. While under the court’s jurisdiction, participants are monitored to make sure they don’t re-offend. If they do, they are held accountable.

Graduates are equipped to choose a more productive path in life, rather than punished and faced with the limited choices provided to those with a fresh criminal record and a continuing struggle with drugs, alcohol, mental health or a combination.

One of the most intriguing of these therapeutic courts assists our military veterans like Vincent Woods, a 35-year-old Vancouver man and Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan. After he was discharged, he struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Woods ended up repeatedly being arrested for drunken driving. Facing months in jail, he hit rock bottom and agreed to give the therapeutic court a try.

Eighteen months later, in December, he graduated from the program. He’s changed his life and has a much more promising future. And he’s far from the only success story; a 2014 study by Washington State University Vancouver showed a stunning 8 percent recidivism rate among Clark County Veterans Therapeutic Court graduates. Statewide, nearly two-thirds of drug defendants who don’t attend specialty courts re-offend.

The veterans court recently got some good news. On June 3, it began accepting case referrals without requiring qualified participants to first plead guilty to a crime. This way, when participants successfully complete their court-ordered treatment program, they won’t have to start their future with a criminal conviction. This new provision that waives the requirement for a guilty plea has already been tried and proven in Clark County’s Mental Health Court. It should give a boost to people already taking their first steps toward success. And both courts now accept felony case referrals.

Of course, therapeutic courts don’t fit every offender. In addition to prosecutors approving every applicant to veterans court, the victims of the alleged crimes are given a say in that decision. Up to 50 people may participate at one time. Defendants are automatically disqualified if they are charged with a violent crime, a sex crime, or a crime that involves using or threatening to use a weapon. Vehicular homicide defendants are also not eligible.

“I believe that it’s a win-win situation in terms of the community,” said Chuck Buckley, a defense attorney who represents clients in the program.

Critics have decried these courts as “hug-a-thug” programs. But, run well, these courts hold offenders accountable for their past deeds while equipping them to hold themselves accountable for an honorable and productive future. That’s justice.

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