OCEAN PARK — Pacific County’s top judge told Peninsula residents last week about how drug abuse and mental illness drive criminal justice issues here.
Donald Richter, Pacific and Wahkiakum County Superior Court judge, visited the Peninsula to meet with residents as part of the Community Watch/Neighborhood Watch Program’s quarterly meeting.
Richter was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee in December 2018, replacing Doug Goelz, who resigned for health reasons. Richter previously worked as Pacific County’s chief deputy prosecutor and a deputy county prosecutor in Pacific and Cowlitz counties. Before moving to the coast, he worked in Spokane County.
Major Peninsula crime issues
Richter said the majority of crime on the Peninsula is driven by mental health issues and drug use.
“When we see folks come into the jail, oftentimes there’s drugs involved,” Richter said. “Increasingly now, there’s fear of mental health issues that are putting a strain on our system and the jail.”
Oftentimes, people coming into the Pacific County Jail face what’s called a dual diagnosis — they struggle both with substance abuse and mental health. The county has both a mental health court and drug court to rehabilitate offenders.
The county’s jail has about twice the number of inmates it was designed to hold.
‘Revolving door’ of Peninsula crime
One audience member questioned Richter about a “revolving door” of Peninsula crime — seeing people repeatedly cycling in and out of the system. Richter said he used to have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint.
“It’s very frustrating when you see what you think to be a revolving door over and over again,” Richter said. “Some of that frustration may be actually with the law itself.”
Criminal law operates on a point system, especially for drug crimes such as simple possession, Richter said. Points accumulate based on what the crime is and how many times someone has done a crime.
Richter doesn’t view Peninsula crime as a revolving-door situation. Richter emphasized the value of the county’s drug court and its impact on community crime.
“Drug court is not a slap on the wrist. If you graduate, it’s an intense 16-month program. If you don’t graduate, you’ve already pleaded guilty to the crime’s maximum penalty,” Richter said. “I can’t characterize that as a slap on the wrist.”
Pacific County recently admitted its 18th member to drug court. Only adults are allowed into the program. In coming months, the judge expects to see several people graduate from the drug court program.
“What we’ve been able to do is bring resources in an intensely focused way for these individuals,” Richter said. “We’re able to put together an individualized treatment plan to address housing issues, work issues, counseling and substance abuse.”
Program participants come from both ends of the county. They’ve typically been charged with low-level property crimes and face a substance abuse problem, Richter said.
“We’re not bringing people from out of the county to be in our drug court and having them live here,” Richter said.
Every Thursday, participants meet with the county’s drug panel to do check-ups and random drug tests. Participants also take part in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and visit with treatment providers.
“When I talk to someone who’s looking at getting into drug court, I tell them upfront ‘If you think this is the easy way out, think again,’” Richter said.
Two women who participated in drug court have since graduated and had healthy babies, Richter said. A third woman and her boyfriend who’ve participated in the program are soon to be parents as well, Richter said.
Richter said this success of new families is one of the things he’s most proud of.
“Changing the drug issue is one thing but also that mentality in trying to break that cycle and get somebody to understand their life has meaning and their actions affect others is a big part of what they go through in the process,” Richter said.
Richter’s perspective on state laws
One neighborhood watch member asked Richter how his perspective on state laws dictates his decisions as a judge.
“It is not my job to determine whether or not I like the law or dislike the law; whether or not I think it’s a good or bad idea. That’s up to the policymakers, the people you put in office,” Richter said. “To enact legislation, that’s my job; to interpret that law is carried out on a case-by-case basis parties are in front of me.”
Richter said if he’s doing his job correctly, his opinion shouldn’t be part of his decision making.
“We all have our own particular ideas and experiences that can influence our opinions,” Richter said. “The best way to protect ourselves against that is to just really understand that those exist and to make sure you’re taking the conscious effort when making those decisions.”
Richter said he’s doing his best to ensure his decisions are based on law and the facts proven inside the courtroom.
Deputy prosecutor work
Richter was also asked about how his perspective has changed since working as a deputy prosecutor. He called his prosecution approach aggressive, with “an eye towards making sure that victims were protected.”
“I still think that’s a valid viewpoint; that was my job,” Richter said.
Since taking on his judicial role, Richter’s been able to take more time to hear stories from those whose cases he’s considering.
“The most horrible thing about treating everybody the same is that you treat everybody the same,” Richter said. “I hear both sides a lot clearer.”
Richter said he treats both sides with respect, as that’s his constitutional duty.
“These victims deserve the same amount of respect and diligence in protecting their rights as the law requires us to uphold,” Richter said.
When working as a deputy prosecutor, Richter was tasked with acting as a county coroner.
“It’s been my experience that sometimes, some people really need to hit rock bottom to really accept, understand and maybe even change. For some people, that might mean being arrested,” Richter said. “As a parent, I would much rather have an officer show up to my house and make my child be arrested and taken to jail than have them show up in a body bag.”
Richter was responsible for picking up the bodies of at least two people he had previously prosecuted. Both overdosed.
“Those are tough calls to go on because you already had a chance to intervene in their life,” Richter said. “We’re ultimately responsible for our own actions but sometimes along that way, it just takes a little guts or a push in the right direction.”
For more information on the neighborhood watch program, contact Howard Chang at 425-559-3175 or email@example.com.