By Samantha Swindler | Oregon Live | September 20, 2017
The former special ed teacher and drug addict sat in a Clackamas County courtroom last Wednesday morning, waiting for her name to be called.
Brynne Fletcher was hopeful about the plea deal she'd worked out with the district attorney's office and ready to begin the next part of her recovery journey.
It's been six months since her arrest for heroin possession.
"She's done so well," said her mom, Suzie Regan, waiting with her before the hearing. "I'm really proud of her because we see a huge difference that we've never seen before."
She turned to Fletcher, seated in front of her, and playfully pinched her cheek.
Fletcher, 34, was arrested in March after being caught with heroin and meth inside her vehicle. The arrest made headlines because it occurred in the parking lot of Alder Creek Middle School in Milwaukie, where Fletcher taught special needs children.
Fletcher had no criminal record, but she had quietly battled a heroin addiction that started a decade ago with the abuse of prescription opioids. Since her arrest, Fletcher has completed a residential addiction treatment program, moved into a sober living house and, she said, stayed clean.
Soon, she'll have her chance to prove it.
The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but a morning of circuit court comes at you fast. Fletcher's hearing was one of 36 cases on the day's docket for Clackamas County Judge Ann Lininger.
In four minutes that morning, Lininger decided issues in five cases. A warrant was issued for the arrest of a woman who failed to appear. A guy pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence. A man charged with identity theft reached a civil compromise with the victim. Another defendant. Another decision.
Each time, attorneys and defendants stood before the judge. It was all so quick, they didn't bother to sit at the tables provided.
Lives turn on these moments.
Whatever plea deal might be worked out with prosecutors, a judge is not obligated to accept it. When Fletcher's case was called, Lininger asked if Fletcher understood that by pleading guilty, she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Yes, she did.
Deputy District Attorney Eriks Berzins spent a few minutes describing the case, saying that Fletcher had cooperated with officers during her arrest and immediately went into residential treatment. He also noted that there were "some issues with evidence collection" that could come into play if the case went to trial.
The defense had provided the judge a half-dozen letters of support from people involved in Fletcher's recovery.
"I see these letters and I read them and that's pretty powerful support for the information that both the state and the defense counsel have presented," Lininger said. "It sounds like you're taking difficult and important steps."
Lininger accepted the prosecution's recommendation. If Fletcher meets the terms of her 18 months of probation, including random drug testing, her heroin possession conviction will be expunged from her record. Fletcher was also sentenced to two days of jail time and given credit for time served. She was fined $260. A charge of meth possession was dropped.
Next to me, Fletcher's mom was crying.
The entire hearing lasted seven minutes.
Afterward, I asked Fletcher how she was feeling.
"Fortunate," she said.
In the hallway after the sentencing, her mom told me, "I hope with all my heart that we'll get past this now and she can move forward and work toward helping others, because that's how she's going to help herself."
What's next? Fletcher hopes to retain her teaching license, but that likely won't be resolved until after her probation. For the moment, she's working in a restaurant and working on recovery.
"She's an exception to an otherwise kind of bleak picture," said Fletcher's attorney, Stephen Houze. "Of folks who really make the effort or have access to the resources to get the treatment they need, she's one of the fortunate few."
Here's hoping she beats the odds.
Berzins said Clackamas County saw a 55 percent increase in drug possession crimes from 2015 to 2016. He didn't have immediate statistics for repeat offenders, but said those with addictions often end up back in the court system, either for drugs or other crimes. A 17 percent increase in property crimes over the same time frame was not coincidental, he said.
Berzins worries that a new law making some first time possession crimes misdemeanors "sends the message that it's not serious." Tough penalties are needed as an incentive for those with drug addictions to quit, he said.
But it's not always as simple as a matter of will.
A 2016 report by Mental Health America ranked Oregon 51st in the nation for access to mental health and addiction treatment.
The new Oregon Recovers campaign will hold a Rally for Recovery at 10 a.m. Sept. 30 at Shemanski Park in Portland with the goal of taking Oregon from last to first for treatment access.
"Addiction is a major factor in our failing foster care system, chronic homeless problem, high incarceration rates and poor high school graduation rates," wrote Mike Marshall, campaign spokesperson.
The campaign's first step is to get the state's Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to come up with a plan by 2018 to increase access to addiction recovery services. The commission was created nearly a decade ago, but "no one has empowered it, integrated it or used it," Marshall said.
Oregon Recovers was inspired by a 2014 Oregonian/Oregonlive investigative series, "Hooked on Failure," which examined the state's flawed drug and alcohol treatment system. The series reported that more than 300,000 Oregonians were not getting the addiction help they needed, and it was costing the state roughly $6 billion in public costs and lost productivity.
Fletcher had a high-powered defense attorney, time at a quality in-patient rehab center and family support. Many Oregonians struggling with addiction don't have those resources.
"We lose a person a day" to drug overdose in Oregon, Marshall said. "Where's the urgency? Where's the leadership?"