Judge Bowler continues to be a strong advocate for treatment court principles

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“My job the last five years has been working with judicial leadership, trying to get judges to understand addiction. You don’t order someone to get clean, you make a path. Instead of our traditional criminal court, which says, ‘I’m ordering you to go get sober,’ we have to help them people get to the point where it comes from within,” says former 61st District Court Judge Patrick C Bowler.

After 24 years on the bench, it would be understandable if Judge Bowler were to relax a little, but instead he has thrown himself into his passion for treatment courts. Since his 2008 retirement, he has worked hard to better the court system along with the lives of people with drug, alcohol, mental health and other issues.

“What drives our circuit case load, 80 percent of it, is alcohol and drugs. We’ve tried just sending them to jail, and we know that doesn’t work. But what does is court support. If they don’t have housing or a job, they’re going to go back to crime. We need a team to get them the help they need,” Judge Bowler says.

He notes that there is sometimes the misperception that drug courts are a “get-out-of-jail-free” pass, but as the Michigan Supreme Court Justice liaison to problem-solving courts Justice Beth Clement (see below) notes in the FY?2018 Problem-Solving Courts Annual Report, “These programs are tough and participants undergo strict supervision, frequent testing, and much-needed treatment.”

Of the 2,984 participants discharged from a drug or sobriety program that year, 1,925 (65 percent) successfully completed the program and graduated, but 29 percent did not.

Moreover, those almost 2,000 graduates not only recidivated less (with those completing an adult drug court two times less likely to be convicted of a new offense within three years of admission), but also had “dramatic” decreases in employment (with those same adult court participants going from 64 percent unemployment to zero percent) and other quality of life improvements.

In 1998, Judge Bowler started the second drug treatment court in the state; the first was started by his law school classmate and later close associate William Schma in Kalamazoo County. He presided over that court for ten years (as well as serving as Chief Judge at the 61st for ten years), and also founded a Sobriety Court Program for multiple-offender misdemeanor and felony drunk drivers, and a Hispanic Sobriety Court.

Prior to his time on the bench, Judge Bowler was Director of the Kent County Office of the Defender. He is a U.S. Army veteran and graduated with honors from Michigan State University, as well as from the Detroit College of Law.

He has always been very active in professional organizations, and was president of the Michigan District Judges Association well as the Grand Rapids Bar Association, where he also co-chaired the Legal Assistance Center Committee. He chaired the Judicial Conference Section of the Michigan State Bar in 1997, and co-chaired the Michigan State Bench/Bar Planning Committee for four years. He also served as Co-chair of the Racial Justice Institute Immediate Response Team.

Over the years, Judge Bowler won multiple awards, many for his treatment court work. He won the William G. Schma (as mentioned above) Achievement Award twice from the Michigan Association of Treatment  Professionals (MACTP), and the Nation DWI Court Leadership Award from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in 2017. He also received the 2011 Marion Hilligan Public Service Award from the MU-Cooley Law School, among many others.

Since his “retirement,” Judge Bowler has gone all around the country presenting and consulting on the development of specialty courts as a faculty member of the National Drug Court Institute. He is also the State of Michigan Judicial Outreach Liaison at the State Court Administrative Office, where he acts as a resource for all three branches of government on public safety issues, and continues training and technical assistance for problem-solving court judges.

Though he has slowed down in the national work, he has signed a contract for a fifth year as the judicial outreach liaison. He still loves doing presentations and researching to make them excellent.

A former adjunct professor at both Michigan State University and WMU-Cooley (when it was Thomas M. Cooley) Law School, Judge Bowler says, “My niche over the last year or two has been in the treatment court judicial leadership area, trying to get judges on board but also understanding the methodology. I always use myself as a comparison; even though I came from the public defender’s office, it didn’t take me long to fall into the judge role. So, I talk to them about how to motivate people to want to get healthy, how to development that trust.”

He also covers nitty-gritty details of how to run and fund such courts.

How specialty courts “fund themselves” is an important question currently, one being played out against a  background of the overall question of court funding, in turn prompted by Michigan and U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

In response to People v. Cunningham, in which the Michigan Supreme Court (MSC) ruled that state law does not provide courts with the authority to impose costs on criminal defendants to fund day-to-day operations, legislators passed an act in 2017 requiring the creation of the Michigan Trial Court Funding Commission. Now as a case challenging the way that legislation handled, People v. Cunningham, is being heard by the MSC, and a related case, Timbs v. Indiana, was decided in February 2019 by the U.S. Supremes.

The report’s first recommendation is that “the state must create the Trial Court Fund for receipt of all trial court assessments ... [which must then distribute appropriate monies to fund trial courts...”

The MACTP issued a response in February, before the report came out, called “Response to the Michigan Trial Court funding Commission Stakeholder Interviews.” It calls for including treatment courts in the overall funding, and proposes possibly streamlining the different courts, such as veterans’, sobriety, mental health, and family dependence, under one court with different channels to make it more efficient. The response also states, “... the principles and methods employed in the problem-solving courts should be integrated into the general administration of justice.” 

Judge Bowler, who is still involved with the MACTP, agrees with both, and will continue to advocate for greater inclusion in the way justice is done.

“The great part of the whole movement is that if you look at professional satisfaction and making a difference, the drug court is the place to go. Lives change, people change, good things come of it,” he says.