Teen Finds Redemption in Drug Court
The Whidbey Examiner, Aug. 17, 2011
Sixteen-year-old Dakota Felkner had a knife held to his throat and was hunted by a gun-toting drug client to whom he'd sold bath salts instead of methamphetamine before he got busted selling painkillers behind Oak Harbor High School.
At the courthouse, Felkner's attorney told him he had two options: face sentencing and possible jail time, or sign up for Island County Juvenile Drug Court for a year.
The drug charge would be dismissed if he attended treatment sessions, passed random and frequent drug screenings, showed up for court appearances, and participated in self-help chemical abuse support groups.
"I didn't take it seriously," recalls Felkner, now 18. "I was hoping to find an easy way around my punishment. I thought it would be a slap on the wrist. But it's a tough program."
Last week, Felkner graduated from Island County Juvenile Drug Court, clean and sober for a year and a half, without a criminal record.
"I'm an entirely different person," Felkner said just a few hours before a graduation ceremony at which he was honored by two judges, program administrators and the Coupeville town marshal.
"I can enjoy life," Felkner said. "I can wake up knowing what I did last night."
Felkner said he couldn't have done it without the help of the drug court program.
"It's where I turned my life around," he said. "I can say that's where everything changed; when I stopped going down that path of destruction. I'm on my way to success."
No second chances
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Island County Juvenile Drug Court. The goal is to treat and eliminate the youth's drug use, and reduce the likelihood of more criminal activity.
The drug court team is a partnership between the prosecuting attorney, rehabilitative and therapeutic treatment providers, probation officers, the public defense attorney and the judges. And for the past five years, a program also has been available to eligible adult offenders.
Eligible for the program are teens younger than 18 who are accused of non-violent crimes such as alcohol violations, drug possession or distribution and crimes such as burglary where chemical use was a factor.
Among youths, the most common offenses involve marijuana, with alcohol a distant second, said Andrew Somers, Island County Drug Court coordinator. In the adult program, it's "overwhelmingly" methamphetamine, followed by heroin and other opiates, he added.
The offenders do not have to enter a plea to the alleged crime before entering the program, and the potential sentence is deferred. If the youth breaks program rules or fails a urinalysis, he or she goes through a bench trial and sentencing. There are no second chances in the program.
The incentives are strong for youths to successfully complete the program, Somers said. The teens are less likely to receive treatment for their chemical dependency and mental-health issues in jail, while a criminal conviction can prevent them from getting a job, joining the military or receiving a scholarship, he said.
Since the program's inception in 2001, 88 teens have participated in the drug court. Of those, 46 have graduated, 33 failed or opted out, one died while in the program, and eight are currently enrolled.
Of the 46 graduates, 10 have been convicted of a new crime within three years of starting the program, for a recidivism rate of 22 percent. Of the 33 participants who either opted out or were terminated from the program, 23 have been convicted of a new crime within three years, for a recidivism rate of 70 percent.
Completion of the drug court program culminates with official recognition for graduates – a formal ceremony that marks an important achievement for people who may not have gotten a lot of positive attention in their lives.
"It gives the youth a great sense of accomplishment," Somers said. "These youths tend not to be recognized for good behavior."
Felkner's father, who later died from heroin use, found it amusing to give his 8-year-old son a beer and watch him stumble around inebriated. Felkner said he didn't have any friends until he joined the football team in junior high school and started smoking pot at 12.
In an essay he wrote while in the drug court program, Felkner wrote, "I was never cool, never popular, never well-liked, but when I started smoking weed and drinking I was likeable. I found refuge in this, I was liked for it, I was loved for it, I was popular for it, and my life seemed so much better – at first."
Then came the military police, the drug dog and other law enforcement officers who descended on his Navy housing complex in Nevada.
Felkner said his cousin had failed a drug test, and told his probation officer the pot was sold to him by Felkner. His stepfather was almost kicked out of the Navy, and his parents no longer trusted him, he said.
Two years later, Felkner and a friend smoked methamphetamine in a school bathroom and exited gagging and dry heaving; they were rushed to a hospital. The teen was put on probation.
After moving to Oak Harbor, Felkner said he made friends with the "wrong people." They sold him painkillers and he quickly became addicted.
"I became nothing more than a druggy tool for somebody to make a profit off of, but for me, it felt absolutely amazing," he wrote in his essay. "I no longer cared that I had no true friends, no longer cared that I was alone, going nowhere."
The downward spiral continued with methamphetamine and heroin. Felkner filled water bottles with booze and ignored his schoolwork.
Then came the bust behind Oak Harbor High School. Felkner and his painkiller client both ran, but Felkner got caught.
"I had purple hair at the time, so it was easy to know it was me," he said.
Felkner chose drug court over possible jail time, but he wasn't happy with the restrictions.
"I wanted to go back out," he said. "I wanted to get wasted and do my thing."
The expectations felt relentless, he said, and at first he resented being held accountable for his behavior.
I thought it was too much expected of me," he said. "They require you to have the tools to stay sober, whether you like it or not."
Felkner's mother, Angeletta Vann, said he watched her son struggle through the program, sticking with it even when he wanted to quit.
"I know it was tough in the beginning," she said. "This has probably changed his life more than he knows."
"Being able to let go of my anger and resentment, I've been able to feel happy for the first time since I was a kid," he said.
Felkner works at Taco Bell in Oak Harbor, and has his own apartment. He said he plans to continue attending self-help chemical abuse support groups. He's interested in perhaps working in body piercing, or studying creative writing at college.
Several celebrants lauded Felkner's writing skills at his drug court graduation celebration last week at Island County Superior Court. They also praised his diligence.
"When you asked the drug court if you could go to Seattle for your birthday, I thought, ‘No frickin' way,'" said Coupeville Town Marshal Dave Penrod. The officer said he was afraid Felkner would get high.
"You proved me wrong," Penrod said. "And I'm very, very glad you did so well."
"I'm so glad to see you happy," added Wendy Moore, who works with the juvenile department as part of the drug court team. "You're such a different person."
Diana Sullivan, lead counselor for Island County substance abuse treatment program, added, "There's a spark there – and a future."