Lianne Padilla’s Fort Collins Municipal Court charges were officially dismissed last week. Chief Judge Jill Hueser marked the occasion with cupcakes and $25 of Walmart gift cards.
It was Hueser’s favorite day of the month: The Right Track docket, a recently reimagined probation program where people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness can avoid misdemeanor and petty offense penalties by setting and achieving personal development goals.
One by one, a dozen program participants approached the podium in the wood-paneled courtroom. They updated Hueser on their progress toward goals like getting their Social Security card or birth certificate, securing a job interview or seeking mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Having finished the third phase of the program, Padilla was one of two Right Track graduates that day. She started the program after getting a camping ticket last year and landing in a residential treatment program for substance abuse. In the last eight months, she’s finished treatment, moved into transitional housing for addiction recovery, found a job and started therapy.
“I’m doing really, really, really good,” Padilla said, adding that her municipal court probation officer had been an invaluable source of support. “She helps me stay accountable and also just reminds me how many steps I took to get here. She’s been there from the beginning to watch me grow.”
“You are just in a very different place than you were when I first saw you,” Hueser told Padilla from the bench. “I’m very happy to see that you look healthy and happy, and I’m very excited to congratulate you on your graduation.”
The room applauded as Hueser ruled Padilla’s case dismissed.
It wasn’t a traditional courtroom scene, but neither is Hueser’s and her staff’s vision for Fort Collins’ municipal court. Since Hueser took the bench in June 2020, the court has taken an increasing focus on restorative justice, individual case management and a problem-solving approach that favors recovery over incarceration. The shift started before Hueser’s tenure but has flourished over the last year.
In December, the court launched its Restorative Traffic Circles program for young people with serious traffic infractions. Soon, a new juvenile diversion program for smoking and vaping offenses will take on its first participants.
The court’s probation program has grown to include three probation officers-slash-case-managers since the first officer joined the court about two years ago. And the court’s leadership has revamped the 8-year-old Right Track program with a new design meant to improve its success rate — the group setting, the three-phase process and Hueser’s appearance at monthly check-ins are all new elements.
Next, Hueser has her sights set on a potential expansion of the juvenile diversion program and, she hopes, a new municipal drug court to promote recovery for people facing misdemeanor drug charges.
The way Hueser looks at it, “it is not my job to decide what the law should be and what should be a crime and what should not be a crime — that is (Fort Collins) City Council’s realm.”
“So there is going to be accountability for breaking the law, because that’s part of the job,” she said. “But what we try to do is craft sentences that really take into account what is going to give this person the best chance at not being back here again.”
Court’s caseload becoming more complex
The Fort Collins Municipal Court wears a lot of hats: It oversees traffic infractions ranging from speeding tickets to misdemeanors, petty offenses, animal control cases, marijuana and liquor licensing, nuisance citations and anything classified as a misdemeanor under the city code or charter.
Traffic cases make up the biggest portion of the court’s growing caseload, but they take up less time relative to other cases because defendants usually take plea deals, plead guilty or make payments out-of-court. Hueser and court staff spend the biggest chunk of time and resources on the misdemeanor caseload, where defendants are more likely to have an attorney or face potential jail time. A small number of community members make up a disproportionate fraction of the court’s dockets.
Probation cases and Right Track program participants are some of the most time-intensive cases of all, but they’re also the cases where court staff hope to have the biggest impact. If Hueser and her staff can help someone address the root problems that are contributing to encounters with police, they could end the damaging cycle of repeated tickets and arrests.
Because Hueser’s staff is small, they can get to know people on a more personal level than you might see in larger county or district courts. She said that puts them in a better position to spot patterns of behavior and “balance compassion with accountability,” the court’s unofficial mantra.
“The great thing about being a local court is we can spot the local issues and we can kind of pour into people on a more individual basis sometimes than the bigger courts where they have bigger caseloads,” Hueser said.
Problem-solving court programs are about building up people’s confidence and sense of self-reliance while holding them accountable with regular, supportive check-ins, Hueser said. Research shows the method reduces recidivism. For the Fort Collins Municipal Court, 94% of Right Track participants who finished the program since June 2020 have had clean records ever since.
The court sentenced 36 people to the Right Track program in 2021. It sentenced another 23 to a more traditional form of probation, which judges will often use when a person isn’t homeless or housing-insecure but is dealing with risk factors that a probation officer could help with.
Before Hueser became chief judge, she served as Fort Collins’ lead municipal prosecutor, as a municipal judge in Loveland and Greeley, and as a deputy district attorney in Adams County. She said she had faith in the problem-solving approach because she’s seen it work in other programs like drug court and veterans court. She remodeled the Right Track program to make it look more like those programs.
One of the biggest changes was the court’s three-phase process. In the first phase, participants work with their case managers to set goals for themselves. The goals can be anything, as long as accomplishing them will improve the participants’ circumstances. One of the most common goals is getting government identification, which is easier said than done when you don’t have documents to start with and don’t have a permanent address.
In the second phase, participants work toward their goals and have regular meetings with their case managers. The second phase can also involve community service. In the third phase, participants work on an aftercare plan if they’ve completed residential treatment and mentor people who’ve just joined the program. Participants get a gift card of their choice each time they progress to a new phase or finish the program. Once they graduate, their cases are dismissed without fines or jail time.
Any defendant who’s homeless or at risk of homelessness is screened for Right Track. The program is voluntary because staff have found that people have more success when they feel motivated to participate.
Hueser and her staff are pretty lenient with participants. If they miss an appointment or two with their case manager, that doesn’t disqualify them from the program. Nor does getting a ticket, falling behind on progress toward a goal or dropping out of the program entirely.
“Our philosophy is, we really don’t give up on people,” Hueser said. “We’ve given people a second chance at the Right Track when in the prior program, they failed out, blew it off and disappeared on us, and they come back and say, ‘I’m ready. Now I want to do it.’ ”
“You never know what someone’s turning point is, or where it is,” Hueser added. “If we believe there’s a chance we can help someone change their path, we’re going to take that chance.”
In anonymous testimony shared with the court, one Right Track graduate said the program had helped them reconcile with their daughter and grandchildren after almost eight years of separation.
“It’s so very easy to go down the wrong path,” the graduate said. “However, knowing that I am a worthy, caring human being makes all the difference. It’s good knowing that people do care about people like me. It’s OK to ask for help.”
Another graduate said the program gave them hope and confidence.
“Everyone has their own story, but what (I’ve) seen was a community of people that share common stressors from being low-income,” the graduate said. “I keep my certificate and carry it proudly from place to place, hanging (on) my wall wherever I lay my head as a constant reminder that I don’t need to steal. Things will get better, and it helps me feel good about myself.”
A move toward restorative justice
Hueser’s staff, including three probation officers and court administrator Patty Netherton, have helped to drive the court toward more restorative justice and problem-solving programs.
Netherton has worked for the court for 20 years and watched it grow and change as the community has evolved. The caseload has risen and fallen over time, but cases have steadily grown more complicated — perhaps due in part to the intersecting societal challenges of housing insecurity and insufficient access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
“I think the complexity of the problems and the challenges that people face in everyday life is reflected in the type of cases that we get here,” Netherton said. “And that means we as a court have to continually grow and innovate, and make sure that we’re being responsive to that need.”
Staff came up with the idea for the Restorative Traffic Circles program after observing an uptick in serious traffic offenses. The new program gives young people a chance to reduce the point penalty for a traffic infraction by putting in about 25-28 hours of work. They choose from a menu of options including things like community service, attending a panel to learn about the consequences of unsafe driving and participating in group discussions.
The program’s goal is early intervention. Rather than paying a fine, taking a class and being done, staff want the participants to understand how their actions affected other people and give them an opportunity to repair some of the harm they caused.
At the first session in December, most of the people in the program had been charged with things like exhibition speeding, probation officer Bernadette Felix said. But one boy in the program had hit a pedestrian with his car.
“One of his contract items that he chose was to write an apology letter to the victim,” said Felix, who’s a trained facilitator and restorative justice practitioner. “That never would have happened in court.”
The soon-to-be-launched juvenile diversion program for smoking and vaping will have a similar format. Court staff are planning panel discussions and other options for participants. The court could expand the program to include marijuana and alcohol offenses in the future if council gives the go-ahead. Expanding juvenile diversion programs was one of council’s priorities for 2021-23.
One of Hueser’s biggest hopes for the court is the creation of a municipal drug court, which could operate much like drug courts at other levels of the system. Hueser has been meeting with stakeholders and trying to lay the groundwork for a municipal program.
Drug court, similar to the Right Track program, involves accountability measures and support from a team of treatment providers and court staff. Colorado’s drug courts only take felony cases, and most drug possession charges are now classified as misdemeanors.
“I think there’s a really big opportunity for local courts to step into the gap that has created,” Hueser said. “Misdemeanor probation officers are probably pretty overwhelmed with the number of cases they have that involve drugs at this point, because they’ve all been written into misdemeanor court.”
The idea goes back to Hueser and her staff’s overarching vision for the municipal court as a positive force in the community.
“I know people don’t think of going to court for a ticket as a positive thing,” she said. “But we are trying to change behaviors that are detrimental to the community. And that’s our overall goal, when it comes down to it. We love seeing people turn it around and do better. I think the best part of the job is when we get to see those success stories.”
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.