U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Stepping Inside the Ottawa County Recovery Court

© Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock.com (see reuse policy).

Looking out over his courtroom, the Honorable Mark Feyen is often met with familiar faces. But not all are legally bound to appear before the judge that day. Instead, these individuals are celebrating the anniversary of their fresh start — the day they graduated from the Ottawa County Recovery Court program.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2005, Judge Feyen has been a part of Ottawa County’s recovery court program since its inception. This voluntary probation program is open to local residents convicted of nonviolent drug- or alcohol-related felonies and is one of approximately 320 drug court programs funded through grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

Recovery court participants take part in the minimum 18-month program, which involves drug and alcohol testing, recovery support meetings, review hearings, and relapse prevention planning. In its first 15 years of operation, the Ottawa County Recovery Court program accepted more than 300 participants with a 65 percent graduation rate. 

“There are a number of people who have a promise to themselves that every year they come back on their one-year anniversary from recovery court,” says Judge Feyen. “They show up, say hello, and say that they are doing well.”

The treatment court model was first developed in Miami in 1989. Since that time, treatment courts have been implemented across the country, with more 3,800 programs established nationwide. 

“The treatment court model really came out of the recognition by folks across the country that the traditional system of processing folks through this adversarial system that focused on punishment wasn’t working,” says Dr. Kristen DeVall, co-director of the National Drug Courts Resource Center (NDCRC). “Folks were cycling in and out. We had seen this over generations. Treatment courts are very much an interdisciplinary model to address what many people would term a ‘public health issue’ — substance use and criminal behavior.”

In the more than 30 years since the country’s first drug court program was started, the recovery court model has evolved and adapted. From this initial model, communities have developed family, mental health, and juvenile treatment court programs aimed at helping participants recover from addiction, as well as reduce recidivism. 

“Over time, more folks have come on board and these types of programs have garnered support. I think a lot of that is through demonstrating that these programs do work. People can change and actively engage in recovery,” says DeVall. “Also there is recognition that it is a cost benefit. It costs a lot less to pay for somebody to go through a program like this than it does to incarcerate someone in jail or prison.”

NDCRC co-director Dr. Christina Lanier acknowledges that drug court programs can face stigma from individuals who perceive them as offering a “Get Out of Jail Free card” to those who have committed an offense. With that in mind, Lanier points out that the drug court model has been effective in cases where a more traditional approach fell short. 

“The thing that treatment courts do is they treat the whole person. They help with housing, education, and employment,” says Lanier. “Those factors that we know through data and research are going to influence someone’s success in treatment, the courts assist with those things as well.”

According to DeVall and Lanier, maintaining the necessary funding and keeping current with an ever-evolving set of best practices are two major challenges faced by drug court programs. These two factors go hand in hand, as during lean fiscal times, training is often the first budgetary item to be cut. 

BJA assists programs such as the Ottawa County Recovery Court by offering grant funding opportunities, as well as training and education. Federally supported training and technical assistance resources include BJA’s National Training and Technical Assistance Center, the Drug Court Planning Initiative, the National Drug Court Institute, the National Drug Court Resource Center, and the Veterans Treatment Court Enhancement Initiative. 

“Over the long history since the drug courts model was proven to be an effective tool in combating substance use disorders and recidivism, BJA has been a proud supporter of programs that carry out this vital work in communities all across America,” says BJA Acting Director Kristen Mahoney. 

The Ottawa County Recovery Court is 100-percent grant dependent and relies on a combination of state and federal grant funding to maintain job security for program employees. This financial assistance allows all team members to work together with their rapidly growing community.

“We’re always evolving. We’ve had a pretty detailed policy manual since we began that didn’t exist. We’ve been adding to it and changing it for 15 years. Our community, at least the criminal justice system, really values collaboration,” says Judge Feyen. “You go some places and the practice of law in courts is very caustic, and lawyers don’t get along. In our community, it’s not really like that. Our program really grew out of that culture.”

With almost 300,000 residents, the western Michigan community of Ottawa is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. The region’s mix of suburban and rural areas presents a unique set of challenges for the recovery court. With no public transportation linking the three major communities in the county, recovery court participants are sometimes required to drive 25 to 40 miles to reach substance-abuse treatment services or the main courthouse. Thanks to a high level of community engagement and local cooperation, volunteers often help transport recovery court participants to their mandated review sessions — just another example of the collaborative effort that goes into the program. 

“First and foremost, the mission of our program is helping,” says Ottawa County Recovery Court coordinator Andrew Brown. “We have a respect for the different disciplines that we all come from because we know inevitably how a prosecutor looks at a case is different from how a therapist looks at a case. But everybody shows up to work every day with the intention of making our community a better or safer place.”

Brown spends much of his time focusing on how the program will continue operating six months to a year down the road. This includes securing grant funding, adapting to a changing political environment, and managing responsibilities related to the Ottawa County Recovery Court’s role as a mentor court. 

Chosen by the National Drug Court Institute, mentor courts offer guidance to those looking to develop similar programs in their own communities or study innovative practices related to the field. Highlighting why the Ottawa County Recovery Court program was selected as a mentor, Brown recognizes his team’s shared sense of decision making that allows them to cultivate trust by matching accountability with empathy. 

Joining the program in 2007, case manager Emily Achterhof credits the recovery court team’s constant dialogue regarding participant issues for creating seamless relationships within the program. 

An example of this level of teamwork can be seen in the program’s incorporation of medically assisted treatment (MAT) in 2013. Once approved by a doctor, participants can receive medication for the treatment of substance-use disorders — a process that requires close cooperation between a participant’s case manager, prescribing doctor, and therapist. 

“We had spent quite a bit of time creating a policy that all of our team members could agree with,” says Achterhof. “At the core of that was collaboration and communication with our approved treatment providers that we were working with.”

Of course, not all familiar faces inside Ottawa County Recovery Court are there to pay a brief visit and commemorate their successful completion of the program. Recovery court team members must recognize the possibility of relapse and find a healthy balance between their expectations. With this in mind, it is important that all past participants know that they can still reach out for help.

“Doing this for over 10 years, it’s amazing that most of our people — regardless if they stay sober the whole time or don’t make it through our program and we come across them years later in jail — they never stop trying,” says Achterhof. “Even when there are setbacks and non-success stories, the conversations that we have with those past participants are that they’re still trying. They still want better for themselves.”

Date Published: August 10, 2021