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Navigating Westminster's Wellness Court

Navigating Westminster's Wellness Court


The City of Westminster is dedicated to finding ways to adapt to the needs of our community. As the city grows and changes, Westminster's judicial system is also changing to meet the needs of our residents.

One way that the Westminster Municipal Court is transforming service is through its wellness court program. Select defendants who plead guilty to non-violent crimes are offered a chance to attend the program as a way to get back on their feet, avoid jail time, and break the cycle of recidivism. Of course, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

“The traditional criminal justice system is adversarial,” Presiding Municipal Court Judge Jason Lantagne explains. “Often, the focus is on punishment, and established ideas of how to reduce recidivism. However, there is strong evidence that alternative criminal justice programs can result in better outcomes for certain individuals, which improves public safety overall."

To that end, Judge Lantagne is committing to and investing in Westminster's Wellness Court Program. “The wellness court takes a different approach. It's a positive incentive-based model that focuses on rehabilitation and personal growth and accountability, rather than a punishment-based model, but it takes additional resources.” 

While the wellness court can provide support and incentives, participants are accountable for their own success. For those who do not meet the requirements of the program, there are also consequences. “It's likely going to be more work than what they would have done had they just gone straight to sentencing and taken a 30-day jail sentence," said Judge Lantagne.

To help give participants the best chances of success, the Municipal Court sought out grant funding so the City could hire Hannah Friskney in November 2023 to be its first full-time wellness court navigator. Friskney focuses her energy on pushing along Westminster’s goal of helping people. Years before embracing her new role with the City, she was doing important work in Southeast Asia.  

"I was working with the babies and toddlers of sex workers," said Friskney. "We had a program called NightCare, which really allowed us to ensure that child abuse and neglect would ideally not happen while the children were not being supervised.” She says the child protection aspect of that experience threads throughout her career. 

Before her time in Southeast Asia, she had experience in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she spent a couple of years helping families and children. “I essentially did resource navigation, where I would go into the homes of the students in the schools and talk with their families about what programs we had that could benefit them.” 

In a way, she’s doing something similar as a wellness court navigator here in Westminster.

Friskney meets with wellness court participants at least every other week to help them stay on track with the program. “We make their action plans to figure out what we need to see happening with them,” she said. It could be anything from working toward finding housing to improving their mental health to finding a job. Many times, simple barriers that some of us may take for granted, such as a lack of transportation, could lead to defendants missing a court date, getting a warrant, and becoming repeat offenders.

One goal of the wellness court program is to help participants overcome these barriers. “A great thing about having Hannah on board is that now we can kind of walk the talk of, 'hey, if you’re willing to put in the work, we have someone dedicated here that will assist you in connecting with the resources that you need to break the cycle,’” Judge Lantagne noted.

During their meetings, Friskney offers resources and support with the goal of guiding them to a better place so they avoid becoming repeat offenders. In addition to resources like mental health care, “as they advance through the wellness court phases, we offer them incentives along the way, which are gift cards, hygiene kits, or bus passes.”  

After completing all wellness court requirements, participants are celebrated with a graduation ceremony, complete with a cap and gown. “Depending on their circumstances, they might have never had a graduation before,” Friskney explained. “We play Pomp and Circumstance when they walk into the courtroom... we make it as special as we can.” 

One recent graduate was homeless and sleeping by a dumpster when he joined the program. By providing guidance and assistance, the wellness court team was able to help the participant receive critical mental health and medical treatment. Eventually, with the wellness court’s assistance and encouragement, the participant was able to get a part-time job that allowed him to rent a room and get off the streets. At the time of graduation, the participant was working full-time, receiving regular medical care, and had stable housing. “When someone is ready to put in the work to turn their life around,” Judge Lantagne reflected, “having a wellness court program is not only good for the participant, but it makes the community safer.”

Friskney also helps people who are charged with municipal crimes, but aren’t part of the wellness court program. As the Court’s resource navigator, she helps educate defendants about community resources and assists them with accessing needed services. “There are high barriers of entry to [many programs], even just applying for certain things with so much paperwork is convoluted. We’ll sit down for two hours, and we’ll fill everything out. It's just helpful to have someone that's walking alongside you until you're ready to walk.” 

This is especially true for defendants who may be homeless or struggling with mental health issues. In a given day, Friskney might help different defendants access food stamps, apply for Medicaid, obtain a copy of their ID, establish mental health care, or enroll for their GED. By removing barriers and helping individuals access community resources, the goal is help them start addressing the factors that contributed to their criminal activity and reduce the likelihood for recidivism.

“When people come in and they meet with me, I want them to feel very heard, and I want them to feel like they walk away with something. Whether that's the number for a food pantry that's open today or whether that's just the feeling of someone cares about me in this community." 

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